The email asked that the message get passed on to ‘Rishi’, ‘Michael’, ‘Liz’, ‘Priti’ and ‘Dominic’Richard Townshend Photography

Several senior Tory ministers were invited to speak at the Cambridge Union last term “to convey the government’s message in an advantageous setting.”

In emails seen by Varsity, the Michaelmas speakers officer Phoebe Pickering outlined that “the Cambridge Union has the potential to be a very useful forum for communicating the government’s agenda to young people” and that, as a former chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) and longstanding party member, she would make sure the interview was “productive” and not “confrontational”.

Some members have raised concerns that this might break the Union’s constitution, which specifies that “there shall be no constraints on the discussion held at the Union, beyond conforming to the laws of England and Wales.”

The same email was sent to several senior Tory frontbenchers in September 2021, among them Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Liz Truss and Dominic Raab, as a “slightly different proposition” after they declined to speak at debates.

The email asked that the ministers’ respective press offices pass on the message to “Rishi”, “Michael”, “Liz”, “Priti” and “Dominic”.

The proposed events would have involved an interview with pre-approved questions, or a direct address to the audience with no Q&A section in a bid to make the invitation more appealing.

In the emails, Pickering wrote that if the ministers were interested in attending an event, Michaelmas 2021 would be “an opportune moment” given that she would chair the event and would be “very willing for the interview to be a productive means of facilitating [the speaker] to be able to get [their] points across about the important work which the government is doing”.

Pickering added that “what must often be off-putting about student events is that the interviews can sometimes run the risk of being too confrontational and, as a result, unproductive for those involved.”

None of the ministers accepted the revised invitation.

Pickering denied that her proposals would have limited what could be discussed: “Nothing within my invitations to Government ministers conveyed to them that specific interview topics were off-limits, nor would anything I wrote have meant that I could not have conducted a critical interview.

“Avoiding a ‘confrontational’ approach does not equate to avoiding scrutiny. In my view, it is precisely when an interviewer is less aggressive, and offers their interviewee the chance to communicate their points calmly, that they get more out of the interviewee, and can line up subsequent critical questions more effectively.” She said this is how she interviewed all her interviewees.

She added: “I am confident that nothing I said in the process of persuading speakers to visit the Union would have precluded any topic of discussion. Moreover, all of our speakers face an audience Q&A, giving members the chance to question them however they wish.”

Pickering also said that “communicating personal sympathies with a potential speaker is standard practice at the Union.”

Since speakers aren’t paid to come, beyond travel and accommodation costs, and their visits carry political risk, “It is entirely appropriate for Speakers Officers to write as persuasive an argument for their visit as possible, and this often includes telling them that they will be received in a friendly manner.”

The Union emphasised this, saying that “Officers and members of invitations committees spend their holidays crafting emails designed to allay the concerns speakers may have.” They said that “Left-wing speakers, such as Ben Bradshaw, are given exactly the same assurances” as the Conservative ministers invited by Pickering.

Pickering told Varsity: “This is not a question of political bias: I had multiple subcommittee members with experience working for the Labour Party, and I vociferously encouraged them to include reference to their personal involvement in Labour when sending invitations to Labour politicians.”

An officer’s invitation to Diane Abbott MP said: “You may recall that we met recently in my capacity as the Harrow West constituency Labour party’s [redacted] Officer, when you came to speak to address our members […] Your ground-breaking achievements within politics and wider society make you an inspiration for many.”

A similar email to Emily Thornberry MP, a Labour frontbencher, said: “For me personally, it would be a sincere honour and delight to welcome you to the Cambridge Union Society, and I am sure you will receive a warm welcome from our members.”

However, the emails to Labour MPs include few of the assurances made to senior government ministers.


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They weren’t told that the interview would be “productive”, and weren’t assured that the interview would have only pre-approved questions. 

According to a confidential source who was involved in the process of inviting potential speakers: “Conservative MPs in particular were invited instead of other political voices in line with a desire to make the Union receptive to conservative thought. It felt as though individuals were driven by their own political views as opposed to taking the Union membership into consideration. Ultimately, I think we were less focused on delivering events that appeal to the society’s membership and more focused on political considerations.”

The revelations have caused concern over the Union’s claim to defend free speech, especially given that when Pickering ran for speakers officer a year ago, she said in her manifesto that “Free speech is about opening yourself up to views you may disagree with, in the knowledge that doing so will enrich your worldview in the long run.”