The Brexit Minister and the conspiracy theory.
During today’s Oral Questions to the Brexit Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union in the House of Commons, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg asked Junior Brexit Minister Steve Baker whether he had heard of an allegation that Treasury officials had “deliberately developed a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union were bad” in order to influence government policy, referring to comments made in private by Charles Grant, Director of Centre for European Reform, a pro-EU think-tank.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: “Will my honourable friend the minister and member for Wycombe confirm that he heard from Charles Grant for the centre for European research that officials in the Treasury had deliberately developed a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union were bad, and that officials intended to use this to influence policy? If this is correct does he share my view that it goes against the spirit of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms that underpin our independent civil service?”
Baker replied telling MPs that he was indeed aware of the allegation. “I’m sorry to say that my honourable friend’s account is essentially correct,” the minister said before being challenged by the opposition. He insisted that he, however, was not confirming whether the allegation was true and that it was “essential that we continue to uphold and support the impartiality of the civil service.”
Steve Baker: “Mr Speaker I’m sorry to say that my honourable friend’s account is essentially correct. At the time I considered it implausible because my direct experience is that civil servants are extraordinarily careful to uphold the impartiality of the civil service. I think that we must proceed with great caution in this matter. But I have heard him raise this issue. I think that we need to be very careful not to take this forward in an inappropriate way but he has reminded me of something which I heard – I think it would be quite extraordinary if it turned out that such a thing had happened because it would... The honourable gentleman says it was correct - I didn’t say it was correct. I said the account, the account that was put to me, Mr Speaker, is correct. It was put to me – I considered it an extraordinary allegation, Mr Speaker – I still consider it an extraordinary allegation and I think we must… I said it was correct that the point… Mr Speaker to be absolutely clear I said it was correct that the allegation was put to me. I did not in any way seek to confirm the truth of it but what I would say is that we need to proceed with great caution because it is essential that we continue to uphold and support the impartiality of the civil service.”
Charles Grant later denied on Twitter having made such a claim: “I never said Treasury officials had deliberately constructed models to show all futures outside the customs union were bad, with the intent of influencing policy.”
And it didn't take long for the Centre for European Reformto release a statement on behalf of its director:
The Centre for European Reform would like to provide the following clarification following an exchange in the House of Commons involving Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union, which mentioned CER director Charles Grant.
During the exchange Jacob Rees-Mogg asked Steve Baker to confirm that Charles Grant had told him that officials in the Treasury had “deliberately developed” an economic model to show that all options other than staying in the European Union’s customs union were bad, and that officials intended to use this to influence policy. In response Steve Baker said Jacob Rees-Mogg’s account was “essentially correct”, adding later that he had not sought to confirm the truth of it.
The CER would like to clarify that Charles Grant told Steve Baker at the Conservative Party Conference that he was aware of research carried out by the Treasury which apparently showed the economic benefits of free trade agreements with countries outside the EU were significantly less than the costs of leaving the customs union. Charles Grant did not say or imply that the Treasury had deliberately developed a model to show that all options outside the customs union were bad with an intention to influence policy.
“I recall saying to Steve Baker at a Prospect lunch at the Conservative Party Conference that I was aware of research that the Treasury had done. This apparently showed that the economic benefits of the UK forging FTAs with third countries outside the EU were significantly less than the economic costs of leaving the customs union. I did not say or imply that the Treasury had deliberately developed a model to show that all non-customs union options were bad, with the intention to influence policy,” Charles Grant said.
Another Conservative MP, Antoinette Sandbach, came to Grant's defence and tweeted:
It does seem that, after having lost the case for a Hard-Brexit, and especially after the Government’s impact paper leak revealed two days ago by Buzzfeed, the Brexiteers — and Brexiteer-in-Chief Jacob Rees-Mogg in the front-line — are now trying to discredit civil servants by all means, including inventing conspiracy theories simply because their work tells the truth about Brexit. The Brexit minister had himself dismissed the economic forecast earlier this week, calling such forecasts “always wrong” and accusing civil servants of having produced a substandard analysis of the economic impact of Brexit.
Was there ever going to be £350m a week for the NHS if Britain was to leave the European Union? Never. Is Turkey going to join the EU very soon? Absolutely not. Will a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU be the “easiest in human history”? Definitely not. Is there a civil service conspiracy against Brexit? Of course not.
We all know now that the Brexiteer politicians in Parliament and in Government have really excelled at lying to the British public since the EU referendum...
And so, Opposition MPs and others, such as Tory MP Anna Soubry, said that Baker has simply “misled Parliament”:
In a statement, Dave Penman, General Secretary of the FDA, the trade union for civil servants, also attacked Baker:
To stand at the despatch box and refuse to challenge a half-baked conspiracy theory about the civil service – one that is even now being disowned by its supposed source – is the height of irresponsibility from a serving minister.
It is not good enough for Mr Baker to simply shrug his shoulders and allow unfounded accusations about officials to go unchallenged.
Every day civil servants put their personal views aside and work tirelessly to implement the decisions of ministers – and they do so with a professionalism that puts the likes of Mr Baker to shame.
These cowardly actions are beneath the office he holds, and Mr Baker risks seriously undermining the government he is a part of.
Although the prime minister is currently in China, her spokesman said this afternoon that Theresa May has full confidence in Steve Baker: “Steve Baker has set out his account and there’s no reason to doubt him,” adding that he was “playing an important role at the Department for Exiting the EU (DexEU)... and doing a good job.”
Some will say Theresa May is so weak she cannot sack the Brexit minister, others will argue that she certainly prefers to keep any Brexiteer (the likes of Baker, Fox, Davis or Johnson) plotting against her within the government rather than having them plotting against her on the outside, even if that means looking weak and with no authority. ●
YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- Steve Baker’s voting record in Parliament.
- Jacob Rees-Mogg’s voting record in Parliament.
- Watch the exchange between Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker in the House of Commons.
(Cover: Dreamstime/Kerem Gogus.)
(This article was first published at PoliticsMeansPolitics.com)