A Brexit minister has apologised after he aired a false claim in the House of Commons that civil servants may be trying to sabotage the UK’s exit from the EU.
In an extraordinary exchange in Parliament on Thursday, Steve Baker was asked to confirm whether he had been told Treasury staff had deliberately skewed analyses to show all scenarios apart from remaining in the Customs Union would be bad for the UK economy.
Backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, a hardline Brexiteer, had pressed the minister about claims made by Charles Grant, of the Centre For European Reform think-tank.
But Grant himself later issued a statement saying he had not told Baker this, and a video of an event where the minister had heard Grant making comments later emerged, proving as much.
The Liberal Democrats accused Baker of “fanning the flames of conspiracy theories”.
On Twitter on Thursday night, Baker said:
In the Commons, Rees-Mogg had asked if he had heard Grant say 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”.
He continued: “If this is correct, does he share my view that it goes against the spirit of the of the Northcote–Trevelyan reforms that underpin our independent Civil Service?”
Baker had said he was “sorry to say” Rees-Mogg’s account was “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,” he added.
“I think 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 in an inappropriate way.
“But he has reminded me of something which I heard.”
Following protests from the opposition benches, the minister quickly moved to say he had not suggested the accusation itself was correct.
“I did not say it was correct, I said the account that was put to me is correct,” he said.
“It was put to me, I considered it an extraordinary allegation, I still consider it an extraordinary allegation.
“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 we need to proceed with great caution, because it is essential we uphold the impartiality of the Civil Service.”
Downing Street had said it had “no reason” to doubt Baker’s account.
In statement, Grant said he remembered discussing Treasury research on Brexit with Baker at a lunch at the Conservative Party conference.
Grant added: “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.”
Lib Dem Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “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.”
Baker came under fire earlier this week for suggesting experts’ economic forecasts were “always wrong”.
He was hauled to the Commons on Tuesday after a civil service assessment of the economic impact of leaving the EU was leaked to BuzzFeed UK.
Rubbishing the study, Baker told MPs the leak was an “attempt to undermine our exit from the EU” and risked “exposing our negotiating position”.