Tory MP is accused of behaving like Joseph McCarthy over Brexit
Why does Chris Heaton Harris want the names of all professors currently teaching European affairs?
"Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?"
So asked The House Committee on Un-American Activities when quizzing movie industry professionals in 1947.
Conservative MP and government whip Chris Heaton Harris did not use the same wording when writing to vice-chancellors at the start of this month asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching Brexit.
But a number of academics think that the staunch Brexiteer might as well have done.
In his letter to vice chancellors, obtained by The Guardian, the MP states:
"I was wondering if you would be so kind as to supply me with the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit.
"Furthermore, if I could be provided with a copy of the syllabus and links to the online lectures which relate to this area I would be much obliged."
Among the academics who are unimpressed is Prof Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at the LSE.
"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," he said.
Universities and Colleges Union general secretary Sally Hunt has also accused Heaton Harris of McCarthyism and said higher education minister Jo Johnson should condemn his colleague’s behaviour.
"Our society will suffer if politicians seek to police what universities can and cannot teach. This attempt by Chris Heaton-Harris to compile a hit list of professors has the acrid whiff of McCarthyism about it and Jo Johnson must disown it in the strongest terms."
So what exactly is Heaton Harris up to? Is there a more innocent explanation?
Initially, the Tory MP declined to explain his behaviour – or whether the Tory party was supportive of his endeavours.
This morning, Total Politics approached Heaton Harris' office and was told to direct inquiries to the Tory press office instead, suggesting Tory HQ was on board. But by lunchtime Tory HQ had still not responded and Number 10 had made a clear bid to distance itself from the Tory whip.
"Chris Heaton-Harris wrote to universities in his capacity as an MP, not as a representative of the government," the prime minister’s spokesman said.
The MP then broke his silence with what looked like a partial climbdown on Twitter - but he still failed to explain why he had sent the letters in the first place.
"To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit," Heaton Harris insisted.