Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, stands for a photograph against the Shanghai skyline in Shanghai, China. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Under-Fire Brexit Minister Backs Down Over Civil Servant Slur

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May’s weakness was highlighted on Thursday after she failed to discipline a minister who claimed he’d been told of a Treasury plan to undermine Brexit, even after a recording was released that contradicted his account.

The minister, Steve Baker, later backed down, acknowledging that the recording showed his recollection of remarks by Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform was wrong. Earlier, he’d surprised lawmakers and apparently his own boss when he said Grant had told him Treasury officials had created a distorted model to support the case for keeping Britain in the European Union’s Customs Union. Grant had denied saying this, and the recording released later supported his account, as did several attendees of the event.

“In the context of that audio, I accept that I should have corrected the premise of the question,” Baker said on Twitter on Thursday evening, referring to the question he had been asked in Parliament that led to his own remarks. “I will apologize 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.”

Baker’s retraction raises questions about May’s administration, which earlier defended the Brexit minister, even after the recording emerged. Her inability to discipline Baker laid bare her reliance on the support of pro-Brexit Conservatives for her political survival. Baker organized anti-EU Tory lawmakers until May promoted him to his ministerial role following last year’s election. The premier also made his successor, Suella Fernandes, a Brexit minister last month.

“We have no reason to doubt his account,” May’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters before the recording was released. The Brexit Department put out a statement after the audio file was published to say Blain’s earlier remarks remained the government’s position.

By contrast to May’s defense of Baker, another minister, Philip Lee, was disciplined by party managers on Wednesday for tweeting that government studies into the impact of Brexit should be released and that policy should be led by “evidence, not dogma.”

Baker’s attack on civil servants was in response to a question by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who took over from Fernandes as head of the anti-EU Tories, the European Research Group. 

After Rees-Mogg’s 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.

It was the the second time the minister has trashed civil servants this week. On Tuesday, he said that their forecasting is “always wrong.”

High Cost

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.”

Rees-Mogg -- touted by bookmakers and the U.K. press as a contender to succeed May -- told an event on Thursday evening that he believed the Treasury models were created to influence policy, and that he held Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond responsible. 

“I think the blame always has to lie with ministers” Rees-Mogg said at the Mile End Institute in East London. “It’s the chancellor of the exchequer who has to take responsibility."

Lending some support to the premier, Rees-Mogg said he thinks May will still be prime minister at the scheduled time of Brexit in March 2019, and that he hasn’t written -- and won’t write -- a letter calling for her resignation.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.