Pro-Brexit Minister Attacks Civil Service, Spurring Backlash

(Bloomberg) -- Brexit Minister Steve Baker was under fire for the second time in three days for casting doubt on the professionalism of officials who forecast that leaving the European Union will damage Britain’s economy.

Baker, who was a key figure in the Leave campaign, told the House of Commons on Thursday that he had been told by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, that Treasury officials had sought to distort economic modeling on Brexit to force a change in government policy. He was responding to a question from Jacob Rees-Mogg, a devoted Brexit backer who is a potential leadership rival to Theresa May.

After jeers from lawmakers, Baker said he hadn’t tried to verify this account, and that he considered it an “extraordinary allegation.” Backtracking, he urged colleagues to “proceed with great caution because it’s essential we continue to uphold and support the impartiality of the civil service.”

Supporters of Brexit, including Baker, have spent the week attacking the reliability of the internal government assessment of the impact of different Brexit scenarios, after BuzzFeed reported that all three of the trade deals modeled showed Britain’s economy taking a hit. Some are angry that the work was even done.

Baker’s position became more difficult when Grant denied saying any such thing. In a statement on his website, he said he recalled telling the minister that he was aware of Treasury research showing that the economic damage of leaving the EU’s customs union would not be offset by new trade deals.

“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,” he said. Duncan Weldon, the economist who chaired the event last year at which Baker and Grant spoke, confirmed Grant’s account, as did Antoinette Sandbach, a Conservative lawmaker who was also present.

The First Division Association, the trade union for civil servants, attacked Baker for entertaining the idea that Treasury officials might be trying to undermine government policy.

“To stand at the dispatch 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,” General Secretary Dave Penman said in a statement. “These cowardly actions are beneath the office he holds, and Mr. Baker risks seriously undermining the government he is a part of.”

Labour lawmaker Alison McGovern also attacked Baker. “Anyone who disagrees with the Treasury forecasts only has to provide their own evidence of how Brexit will affect our growth,” she said. “It is a disgrace that rather than discuss this like adults, ministers impugn the motives of civil servants. They should grow up.”

On Tuesday Baker attacked the forecasting of civil servants as “always wrong” -- comments that led him to have a meeting with his officials the next day to reassure them that this was not a personal attack. But his boss David Davis made similar comments on Thursday. “Every forecast that’s been made of the period post-referendum has been wrong,” he said. Economic analysis, he added, is a “work in progress.”

The Treasury, long one of the U.K.’s most respected institutions, has come under criticism from Brexit supporters over Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s push for ties to the EU to remain close after the divorce. Anti-EU Tories have been open in their contempt for Hammond, who some consider an obstacle to Brexit.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.