Kate Green has called for the former Conservative MP and sitting peer James Wharton to resign the Tory whip and criticised his appointment as chair of the Office for Students (OfS) as the latest in a “growing catalogue of cronyism”.
The Tory Lord has been confirmed as the chair of the universities regulator in England this afternoon, despite the Commons education committee voicing strong concerns last week about his ability to be independent.
Reacting to his appointment today, the Shadow Education Secretary argued: “Students have been forgotten by this government, which is more concerned about securing jobs for their friends.
“It’s ridiculous to think James Wharton could make independent decisions while continuing to sit as a Conservative peer. He must resign the whip without delay.
“It’s vital for public confidence that concerns surrounding senior appointments are urgently looked at. This is why a Labour government will end this cronyism by restoring transparency at the heart of government through establishing an integrity and ethics commission.”
The OfS was established to regulate universities in England in 2018, so that “every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education”, and acts as a champion of equality and diversity.
Commissioner for public appointments Peter Riddell accused the government last year of “packing” the panel to recruit the chair. It included one Tory peer, one former Tory MP, a former Tory candidate and Theresa May’s former chief-of-staff.
Wharton, the former Conservative MP for Stockton South who was awarded a peerage by the Prime Minister last August, told the Commons education committee last week that he would be keeping the Conservative whip.
He argued he could negotiate a deal with Tory whips to allow him to speak out: “They will give me more latitude and understand that I may need to vote against, or speak against, some of the things the party in government could bring forward.”
The peer, who was campaign manager for Boris Johnson in his leadership bid, also admitted to committee members that he has no direct experience of higher education but said this was “hopefully a good thing”.
Green’s comments come after Rachel Reeves delivered a speech exposing the extent of Tory “cronyism” in the pandemic and contrasting the government’s treatment of workers with the contracts it has awarded to friends and donors.
“As well as handing out contracts to them, the Tory government has also inserted so many friends of ministers and donors into key positions of influence,” the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told the public on Monday.
“This government’s philosophy is so often not appointing the best person for the job but the best friend for the job. For example, why is the government’s anti-corruption champion a sitting Conservative MP?”
Tory MP for Weston-super-Mare John Penrose was appointed as the anti-corruption champion for the UK in 2017. He is married to Baroness Dido Harding, who was put in charge of the NHS test and trace programme last year.