Fury as minister escapes discipline for 'conspiracy theory' that civil servants are distorting Brexit evidence

Downing Street said Mr Baker had been spoken to by one of the Prime Minister's aides – but there is 'no reason' to take the matter further

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
,Lizzy Buchan
Thursday 01 February 2018 21:47
Charles Grant: The recording at the centre of the Commons Brexit storm

Theresa May has come under fire for failing to discipline a minister accused of ”fanning conspiracy theories” that civil servants had tried to influence Brexit policy.

Brexit minister Steve Baker was roundly condemned for acknowledging “extraordinary allegations” in the Commons that impartial Treasury officials had distorted evidence in favour of remaining in the EU’s customs union.

As pressure mounted on Ms May to intervene last night, Mr Baker issued a statement apologising for his remarks, saying he had the “highest regard” for hard-working civil servants.

It came after Downing Street said Mr Baker had been spoken to by one of the Prime Minister’s senior aides but there was “no reason” to take the matter further – despite the source of the allegations forcefully denying the claim.

The row began when Mr Baker told MPs he had heard the suggestion that civil servants were trying to engineer a soft Brexit from Charles Grant, head of the influential Centre for European Reform think tank, at a lunch at the Conservative Party conference in 2017.

However a recording of the exchange emerged last night which contradicted his claims, in which Mr Grant said the Treasury was “determined” to stay in the customs union but nothing further.

Furious MPs called for Mr Baker to be disciplined, while Mr Grant said his behaviour was “incomprehensible” and urged Number 10 to clarify the facts.

The Prime Minister’s decision to stand by the pro-Brexit MP has also raised eyebrows after she chose to silence justice minister Phillip Lee when he questioned whether Brexit should be halted in the face of poor economic forecasts.

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake told The Independent that Mr Baker should be disciplined and investigated for a possible breach of the ministerial code.

He said: “Ministers should never be in the business of fanning conspiracy theories.

“This is exactly what minister Baker has done. Either he knows officials deliberately skewed their research, or he doesn’t. His words are not worthy of a Government minister.

“This is not a case of the civil service conspiring against Brexit, but of the facts conspiring against the agenda of Brexiteers like Mr Baker.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union which represents senior officials, accused Mr Baker of giving oxygen to “a half-baked conspiracy theory about the civil service”.

“It is not good enough for Mr Baker to simply shrug his shoulders and allow unfounded accusations about officials to go unchallenged.

“These cowardly actions are beneath the office he holds, and Mr Baker risks seriously undermining the Government he is a part of.”

Chris Leslie, a Labour supporter of the Open Britain campaign for close links with the EU, said Mr Baker had ”extremely serious questions to answer” over his conduct.

He said: “After the publication of this recording, it appears that for the second time in a week he used the despatch box to promote a conspiracy-theory to explain why the Government’s own data about Brexit shows it will be very bad news for Britain. If confirmed, this is extraordinary and unacceptable behaviour for someone in his position.

“He now needs to give a full account of himself and explain whether he believes it is appropriate to use his position to make such allegations.”

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the civil service, appeared to take a sideswipe at Mr Baker when he tweeted that he was “proud” to have spoken to a conference of officials.

“Every day their great work supports the Government in making evidence-based policy and helps deliver better public services across the country,” the Cabinet Secretary posted.

The controversy blew up amid fury over the leak of secret Brexit analysis, now to be released to MPs, which concluded the UK will be poorer under all mooted exit options.

Brexiteers have privately accused Sir Jeremy of conspiring with the Treasury to produce the devastating research, without the knowledge of ministers in the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU).

The allegation was made public when Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg asked Mr Baker to confirm that Mr Grant had told him that “officials in the Treasury have 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”.

Mr Rees-Mogg added: “If this is correct, does he share my view that it goes against the spirit of the Northcote rebellion reforms that underpin our independent civil service?”

Mr Baker, who had previously dismissed Whitehall forecasts as “always wrong”, replied: “I am 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 we must proceed with great caution in this matter but I heard him raise this issue.”

Challenged by opposition MPs, Mr Baker added: “I didn’t say it was correct. I said the account that was put to me is correct. It was put to me. I considered it an extraordinary allegation. I still consider it an extraordinary allegation.”

But, speaking soon afterwards, Mr Grant said he had simply passed on that he had heard Treasury forecasting had shown free trade agreements would fail to compensate for the economic costs of leaving customs union.

“I did not say, or imply, that the Treasury had deliberately developed a model to show that all non-custom union options were bad, with the intention to influence policy.”

Mr Baker posted a statement on Twitter last night, saying: “This morning in Parliament, I answered a question based on my honest recollection of a conversation. As I said, I considered what I had understood to be implausible, because of the impartiality of the civil service.

“The audio of that conversation is now available and I am glad the record stands corrected. In the context of that audio, I accept that I should have corrected the premise of the question.

“I will apologise to Charles Grant, who is an honest and trustworthy man. As I have put on record many times, I have the highest regard for our hard working civil servants. I will clarify my remarks to the House.”

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