Anti-EU Tory MP who demanded Brexit course details from universities 'was just working on a book'

Posted On: 
25th October 2017

An anti-EU Conservative whip who wrote to universities demanding to know what they were teaching about Brexit was simply doing personal research for a book, it has been claimed.

Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris has insisted he backs "open and vigorous" debate on Brexit
Parliament / Chris McAndrew

Universities Minister Jo Johnson offered the bizarre explanation as he said the letter by Chris Heaton-Harris “probably should not have been sent”.

The Daventry MP was accused of compiling a “hit list” of professors after he wrote to universities asking for the names of those who lecture on Brexit and the content of their courses.

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Tory ex-chair and Oxford vice chancellor Lord Patten said his actions were “Leninist”, while a top academic at the LSE branded it “McCarthyist”.

Mr Johnson argued the charge of Leninism was a “gross exaggeration”, but admitted Mr Heaton-Harris may have made a mistake.

“I think a letter that could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent in this way,” he told Radio 4’s Today programme.

But he added: “Chris has got a very long-standing interest in European affairs and the history of European thought and he was pursuing enquiries of his own that may in time, I think, lead to a book on these questions.

“So it was more of an academic enquiry rather than an attempt to constrain the freedom that academics rightly have.”

Lord Patten blasted yesterday: “I had to check up it was true, because it seemed to me such an extraordinary example of outrageous and foolish behaviour; offensive and idiotic Leninism.”

Speaking to Radio 4’s World at One, he added: “I couldn’t believe that this could come from a Conservative MP.

“I think he must be an agent of Mr Corbyn intent on further increasing the number of young people who want to vote Labour.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful and I’m sure most universities’ vice-chancellors will deal with it in the most appropriate way which is to drop it in the waste paper basket.”

The head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, Kevin Featherstone, also hit out, telling the Guardian: "The letter reflects a past of a McCarthyite nature.

"It smacks of asking: are you or have you ever been in favour of remain? There is clearly an implied threat that universities will somehow be challenged for their bias.”

Sally Hunt, chair of the University and College Union said the “hit list of professors has the acrid whiff of McCarthyism about it”.

But Mr Heaton-Harris tweeted: “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.”