Johnson backs Williamson in row over students removing Queen’s picture – No 10

Boris Johnson supports the Education Secretary’s criticism of Oxford University students who voted to remove a photo of the Queen from their common room, according to Downing Street.

Members of Magdalen College Middle Common Room (MCR), which is made up of graduate students, overwhelmingly voted to remove the portrait from their common room.

Mr Williamson branded the move “simply absurd”, and a Number 10 spokesman said on Wednesday: “You have had the Education Secretary’s words, which the PM supports.”

Tory leadership race
Downing Street said Mr Johnson backed the Education Secretary’s remarks (Niall Carson/PA)

It came after barrister Dinah Rose, president of the college, said staff had received “threatening messages” over the controversy, as she defended students’ right to “free speech and political debate”.

She tweeted: “So if you are one of the people currently sending obscene and threatening messages to the college staff, you might consider pausing, and asking yourself whether that is really the best way to show your respect for the Queen.

“Or whether she’d be more likely to support the traditions of free debate and democratic decision-making that we are keeping alive at Magdalen.”

In a series of tweets, she emphasised that the students are not representative of the college, but added: “Magdalen strongly supports free speech and political debate, and the MCR’S right to autonomy.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

“Maybe they’ll vote to put it up again, maybe they won’t. Meanwhile, the photo will be safely stored.”

She concluded that being a student is about “exploring and debating ideas” and often about “provoking the older generation”, adding: “Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days.”

On Tuesday evening, Mr Williamson tweeted: “Oxford University students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd.

“She is the Head of State and a symbol of what is best about the UK. During her long reign she has worked tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusivity and respect around the world.”

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

He has since faced criticism from the University and College Union (UCU), which said the comments were a “distraction from the disastrous, systemic failings this Government has presided over in higher education”.

General secretary Jo Grady said: “Williamson styles himself as a champion of free speech and academic freedom, but never misses an opportunity to attack staff and students who are merely exercising these rights.

“As university staff have already pointed out, this Government doesn’t care about freedom of speech on campus, and its attempts to change the law should be seen as nothing other than a Trojan horse for policing what students and staff can and cannot do.”

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick called the row “student union politics”, but said he is “proud” to have a portrait of the Queen in his office.

Robert Jenrick
Robert Jenrick (Yui Mok/PA)

He told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday: “I’m a huge fan and supporter of Her Majesty the Queen, I think we are incredibly lucky to live in a country with a head of state of her stature.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to disrespect her out of ignorance in this way, but I don’t think that we should waste too much time on student union politics.”

Political website Guido Fawkes reported that the motion to remove the portrait was launched to make members “feel welcome”, with one student said to have commented “patriotism and colonialism are not really separable”.

On its website, Magdalen College Middle Common Room describes itself as “one of the biggest graduate communities of the traditional Oxford colleges”.

It says: “Our graduates come from many different countries throughout the world, and have diverse interests, academic and otherwise.

“The MCR forms an integral part of the Magdalen graduate experience – not only do we organise social and cultural events for students so that we can make the utmost out of our time in Oxford, but we also provide a network of support for graduate life in representing the concerns of students to the college.”