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Coffee House

Conservatives dump their dirty laundry on the despatch box

1 February 2018

5:11 PM

1 February 2018

5:11 PM

Well, this is going well. The leak of the government’s Brexit economic forecasts this week has led to an almighty row within the Conservative party. With Britain predicted to be worse off in all the off-the-shelf alternatives to EU membership, Remainers have claimed it as evidence that Brexit is a bad idea while Brexiteers are quick to brand it as the latest Project Fear effort.

Steve Baker – a Brexit Minister – took the unusual step on Tuesday of rubbishing the government report – and, for that matter, the government’s ability to forecast anything; ‘I am not able to name an accurate forecast and I think they are always wrong and wrong for good reasons’. As Mr Steerpike points out on Coffee House, he has a point.

Today there was a new twist when Jacob Rees-Mogg asked Baker whether he was told that the government’s recently leaked Brexit economic analysis was a weapon created by the Treasury to push for a soft Brexit. He asked Baker whether he had heard it was ‘deliberately developed… to show that all other options than staying in the customs union were bad and that officials intended to use this to influence policy’. Baker replied that this account was ‘essentially correct’:

JRM: 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?

SB: 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 denies the claim made by Baker – and others have since come forward to back this version of events. But regardless of who said what, the fact that the Tories are choosing to dump their dirty laundry on the despatch box is yet another indicator that Theresa May is losing control. For a minister to give a nod and a wink to the idea that a government department is trying to load the dice to change government policy is really quite extraordinary.

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