Steve Baker accepts mistake in civil service ‘conspiracy theory’ row


Steve Baker.
House of Commons

A Brexit minister has said he accepts he made a mistake in a Commons exchange which prompted a row about the independence of the civil service.

Unions had accused Steve Baker of not challenging a “half-baked conspiracy theory” that the Treasury was trying to influence policy on the customs union.

An MP had suggested this was a claim made to Mr Baker by a think tank director, who has now denied doing so.

Mr Baker said he should have “corrected the premise” of the MP’s question.

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During Commons Brexit questions, prominent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg had asked Mr Baker to confirm if he had heard from Charles Grant, of the Centre for European Reform think tank, 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”.

In response, Mr Baker said he was “sorry to say” that Mr Rees-Mogg’s account was “essentially correct”, adding: “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.”

‘Extraordinary allegation’

Mr Baker was challenged by opposition MPs as he delivered his answer to Mr Rees-Mogg, prompting him to add: “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.”

Mr Grant then released a statement denying the account of what he had said.

He said he recalled telling Mr Baker at an event at the Conservative Party conference that he was aware of Treasury research showing the economic costs of leaving the customs union outweighed the benefits of striking free trade deals.

But he added: “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.”

‘I will apologise’

An audio recording of Mr Grant’s lunch at the Tory conference has since been published online.

In a series of tweets on Thursday evening, Mr Baker said he had based his answer on “my honest recollection of a conversation”.

“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.”

He had been criticised by Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union which represents senior civil servants.

“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,” he said.

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

Earlier this week the union clashed with Mr Baker after the minister dismissed a leaked government report about the economic impact of Brexit, saying civil service forecasts were “always wrong”.

Before Mr Baker’s correction, Downing Street had said that the prime minister had full confidence in him.