Brexit minister suggests civil servants may be conspiring to keep UK in customs union
A government minister today suggested the civil service could be conspiring to keep Britain in the customs union after Brexit.
Steve Baker, a junior minister in the Department for Exiting the EU, said he had heard rumours that mandarins had doctored economic forecasts to show remaining in the trade area was the best option after Brexit.
His comments made his boss David Davis wince as he sat next to him during Brexit questions in the House of Commons.
Jacob Rees-Mogg - who chairs the 60-strong European Research Group of backbench Tory Brexit supporters - asked if Mr Baker had heard claims from a thinktank boss that Treasury officials “deliberately developed a model” to show everything but staying in the customs union was bad "as a means to influence policy".
Mr Baker said it was “essentially correct” to say he had heard the rumour from Centre for European Reform director Charles Grant.
"I think we must proceed with great caution in this matter, but I have heard him raise this issue,” he said.
“I think we have to be very careful not to take this forward in an appropriate way but he has reminded me of something I heard and I think it would be quite extraordinary if it turned out that such a thing had happened."
Mr Baker said he “did not in any way seek to confirm the truth” of the allegation.
Watch his comments - and David Davis' reaction - here:
The exchange centred on a leaked government paper that suggested UK growth would be stunted by every possible outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
Downing Street refused to comment on Mr Baker's remarks but said it did not believe there was a conspiracy led by civil servants.
In a further twist, Mr Grant himself said the account given by Mr Rees-Mogg and Mr Baker was not completely accurate.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA civil servants' union, said: "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."