The Tory MP who wrote to universities asking for the names of Brexit academics should “probably” not have done so, the Universities Minister has said.
“I’m sure Chris is regretting this,” Jo Johnson said, after Chris Heaton-Harris’ letter was met with fury from academics who accused him of being the “thought police” and trying to intimidate them.
On Wednesday’s Today Programme, Johnson was asked four times whether he thought Heaton-Harris should have sent the letter, before he finally said: “A letter that could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent.”
Johnson also said Heaton-Harris may have sent his letter because he was writing a book on Europe.
This was met with scepticism on Twitter.
Journalist Robert Hutton, who is writing a book, wondered whether he could use parliamentary researchers for help writing it.
Johnson told Today: “Chris Heaton-Harris is able to speak for himself better than I can.”
Heaton-Harris’ letter was sent to all vice chancellors and asked if they “would be so kind” as to give him “the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit”.
But noting Heaton-Harris’ staunchly pro-Brexit position, one vice-chancellor responded: “If I don’t, is he planning to use parliament to denounce me as an ‘enemy of the people’? Why me?”
“He has written to me personally, by name, asking me to give him the names of those who are giving classes about the European Union and give evidence about exactly what they are saying,” The University of Worcester’s David Green said.
“I realised that his letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous.”
Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, who previously called for Heaton-Harris to be sacked as a whip over the letter, said Johnson had to “defend the indefensible”.
Cable added: “It is a sign of the weakness of this government that Jo Johnson was sent out to defend the indefensible.
“The universities minister should have wasted no time calling out this divisive and fundamentally illiberal attempt to put pressure on academics over Brexit.
“Instead he came up with excuses that raise more questions than answers.
“Trying to dismiss this letter as research simply won’t wash with the many academics who have been made to feel like victims of a witch-hunt...
“Anything short of a complete and unequivocal statement on this from the Prime Minister will simply not do.”
Downing Street sought to distance itself from Heaton-Harris’ letter, saying he was not writing in his capacity as a Government whip.
In a blog for HuffPost UK, Durham Law School dean Thom Brooks wrote: “Is this an effort to name and shame departments and universities into closing down debates over Europe and Brexit?
“Is this an MP trying to put pressure on institutions to shy away from looking too closely at an area of government policy on Brexit?
“McCarthyism fears have some fuel in his requesting copies of links to actual classroom teaching.”
Heaton-Harris has not commented on the furore beyond a tweet saying: “I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.”