One of Theresa May’s Brexit ministers has been forced to apologise after airing claims in parliament that civil servants had deliberately produced negative economic models to influence policy.
Downing Street initially backed the minister despite the fierce backlash, but later said he had made a “genuine mistake” after a recording brought into question what he had said.
The row began after Baker was asked by Jacob Rees-Mogg, a senior Eurosceptic Tory backbencher, to confirm that a Europe expert had told him Treasury officials “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”.
As the minister stood up, his boss David Davis muttered an instruction to say that it “didn’t happen”. The Brexit secretary then clearly grimaced when his minister of state opted for a different response.
Instead of issuing a denial, Baker said he was sorry to say the account of the conversation was “essentially correct”. He said he considered the suggestion implausible at the time because of his experience of civil servants’ impartiality and said it would be “quite extraordinary” if true.
The comments came after Baker faced anger earlier in the week after comparing the economic forecasts of civil service officials to astrology.
Rees-Mogg was referring to an alleged conversation between Baker and Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Research and an expert on EU negotiations, at a lunch at the Tory party conference.
However, several individuals present at the event challenged the claim, including Grant himself and a Tory MP, Antoinette Sandbach. Prospect magazine later issued an audio of the conversation in which there is no suggestion about officials trying to rig the analysis.
After the audio emerged, Baker said his answer was based on an “honest recollection of the conversation” but he now stood corrected. He added that he would apologise to Grant and clarify his comments in parliament.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union representing senior civil servants, earlier told the Guardian that Baker clearly did not understand his responsibilities as minister of state.
“It is simply not good enough to stand at the dispatch box and peddle the myths being articulated by backbenchers simply because you share their ideology,” he said. “If Mr Baker believes these serious accusations have merit, he is obliged to either take action against those concerned or clear their name publicly.
“Civil servants understand their obligations to act impartially, but it would appear that once again Mr Baker doesn’t. It is increasingly obvious that certain ministers are untouchable and act with impunity, undermining the very government they serve and the civil servants who support it.”
Grant said he had spoken about the Treasury studies, but added: “I did not say or imply that the Treasury had deliberately developed a model to show that all non-custom union options were bad with the intention to influence policy.”
The audio showed that the thinktank director had said “the Treasury is determined to stay in the customs union” but made no suggestion they were deliberately producing negative studies to prove their case.
However, Brexiters still claimed that there was evidence of Treasury officials trying to influence policy. Rees-Mogg pointed to an earlier tweet by Grant quoting a Guardian article claiming the Treasury was “pushing UK govt towards a softer Brexit” which he said was well-informed.
Rees-Mogg, who now chairs the influential European Research Group of Brexiter Tory politicians, used an event at the Mile End Institute to hit out at the chancellor, Philip Hammond.
“I think the blame always has to lie with ministers. It’s the chancellor of the exchequer who has to take responsibility,” he said.
A Treasury source hit back, saying: “Personal attacks are below a man of his intelligence. It’s fine to disagree on policy but Jacob Rees-Mogg lets himself down by failing to be accurate. The chancellor is not freelancing or trying to undermine the prime minister.”
The former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, said the leaking of government analysis earlier this week that suggested Britain would be worse off after leaving the EU, could counter-intuitively cement the case for Brexit.
“I think the whole process has backfired on those who want to remain because the last thing they needed was for this to be in the public domain,” he said, suggesting that would highlight flaws in the techniques used by civil servants.
However, Pat McFadden MP, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said the responses to the leaks had been “conspiracy theory central”.
“The way the Brexit minister spoke about the civil service from the dispatch box both today and earlier in the week speaks volumes about what Brexit is doing to our politics,” he said.
“This week we’ve seen ministers rubbish their own government’s documents, attack all forecasting, take pot shots at the Bank of England and reprimand parliament about its role. None of this is healthy for our democracy.”
Sandbach, who attended the Prospect event, said Rees-Mogg had, in parliament, made “a very serious allegation about the conduct of the civil service” that had no basis in fact.
Jo Maugham QC, a fiercely pro-EU campaigner who was also present, said Baker and Rees-Mogg had “misled parliament” and ought to apologise or resign.
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