May Stands By Pro-Brexit Minister Who Attacked Civil Service

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May backed Brexit Minister Steve Baker after he cast doubt on the professionalism of civil servants for the second time in a week, sparking a backlash from lawmakers.

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 modeling on the economic damage caused by Brexit in order to force a change in government policy. That followed remarks he made on Tuesday that forecasting by civil servants is “always wrong.”

But Grant denied saying any such thing, and two other people who were present when the supposed remarks were made cast doubt on Baker’s recollection of events. Prospect Magazine later released a recording of Grant’s words, which also backed his account. The First Division Association, the trade union for top civil servants, rebuked Baker, calling his comments “the height of irresponsibility.”

But May stuck by her minister. “We have no reason to doubt his account,” May’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters following a meeting between Baker and an aide to the premier.

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.

Leadership Rival

Baker was brought into the government last year, having previously chaired the European Research Group, an affiliation of pro-Brexit lawmakers. That post is now held by Jacob Rees-Mogg, a potential leadership rival to Theresa May, whose question in Parliament Baker was answering when he made his remarks.

After Rees-Mogg asked the question, even Baker’s boss seemed dismissive. On the official recording of the session, Brexit Secretary David Davis could be heard saying “didn’t happen” as Baker rose to answer. Then, when Baker described Rees-Mogg’s suggestion as “essentially correct,” Davis made a surprised face.

After jeers from lawmakers, Baker said he hadn’t tried to verify the account, and that “at the time” he had 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.”

In the excerpted recording of the meeting between Grant and Baker, released by Prospect, Grant said that unpublished Treasury analysis showed “the economic costs of leaving the single market and the customs union are much greater than the economic benefits even trade agreements with every other country in the world.”

Baker’s department said in a statement the government’s position was unchanged following the release of the recording.

Grant said in a statement: “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.”

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 FDA’s statement suggests Baker is losing the faith of his own officials.

“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,” FDA 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.”

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