Chilly reception in a Tory high-pressure zone

Ebdon's Iceland holiday may have facilitated BIS panel's cold shouldering, reports Simon Baker

February 16, 2012

The Labour chair of a group of MPs that vetoed the appointment of Les Ebdon as director of the Office for Fair Access said the row reflected "tensions in the coalition" rather than a proper appraisal of his suitability, amid claims that Conservative members were pre-briefed to attack the vice-chancellor.

Adrian Bailey said he would "personally" not be aggrieved if Les Ebdon were given the job, despite the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee's rejection of the appointment. Mr Bailey did not exercise his casting vote as chair, as it would not have affected the outcome.

Professor Ebdon was opposed by four Tory MPs and backed by two Labour MPs after being selected from a shortlist of three candidates by Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, and David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

Mr Bailey is to consider a letter from David Ward, the Liberal Democrat member of the committee, asking for an investigation of claims that the panel's Tory MPs were briefed to attack Professor Ebdon.

Mystery still surrounds the circumstances of Professor Ebdon's hearing before the committee on 2 February, which was attended by all five Tory members (one of whom declined to vote) while Mr Ward and two of the five Labour members missed the event. Only those MPs who attended could vote on whether to approve his candidature.

Mr Ward said he had been told by one of the Tory MPs on the committee that "some degree of pressure" had been exerted on the Conservative members of the group over the appointment.

"If we are going to have people attend before the committee, we have to give them some sort of faith in us that whatever our political views we are going to give them a fair hearing," he said.

"If all members of the committee were there, then my guess is that the vote...would have been in favour of Professor Ebdon," he said, adding that the attendance of all the Tory MPs when they were not obliged to turn up increased general suspicions of a coordinated move.

However, Nadhim Zahawi, a Conservative member of the committee, was adamant that there had been no interference and said that those present at the hearing, including the Labour members, had been minded to disapprove of Professor Ebdon's appointment.

"There's no way I would go into a pre-appointment hearing having had some form of briefing from someone that wasn't on the select committee," he said.

He added that Professor Ebdon had dealt "very well" with his pre-hearing concerns about maintaining the Offa director's independence, given the vice-chancellor's previously stated views.

But Mr Zahawi said he was alarmed by Professor Ebdon's evidence on the reasons why poorer students are less able to reach selective universities.

Despite all the political wrangling and claims of interference, it is also conceivable that Professor Ebdon's holiday in Iceland put paid to his approval.

Confusion over his whereabouts led to a last-minute rescheduling of his pre-appointment hearing - and thus to a clash with the diary commitments of some of the Labour and Liberal Democrat members of the committee.

Under no obligation to be present, and assuming a government-selected candidate would be approved, they did not attend the hearing.

Nay-sayers: the MPs who voted against Ebdon's Offa appointment

Who are the four Conservative MPs whose decision to reject Les Ebdon as director of the Office for Fair Access sparked a stand-off at the highest level of British politics?

Nadhim Zahawi, MP for Stratford-upon-Avon

Educated at the independent King's College School in London, Mr Zahawi studied chemical engineering at University College London and later made millions from co-founding the polling company YouGov. Said to be "ruthlessly ambitious" and have the ear of chancellor George Osborne.

Margot James, MP for Stourbridge

A governor at her alma mater, the London School of Economics, where she studied economics and government. As a student, Ms James chaired the Conservative Association and was elected to the student union executive.

Simon Kirby, MP for Brighton Kemptown

Educated in the state sector at Hastings Grammar School, Mr Kirby is an entrepreneur who helped set up a Brighton commercial radio station, now called Juice FM. He gained a degree in mathematical modelling from The Open University.

Rebecca Harris, MP for Castle Point

Her political experience includes advising Tory politician Tim Yeo, once a shadow secretary of state for public services, including education. Since her election to Parliament, she has championed a private member's bill on increasing daylight-saving time in the UK.

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