There was a time when Eurosceptics revered British democracy: its sovereign parliament, its independent judiciary, its neutral civil service. But the Brexit referendum created an alternative centre of power: the people. Rather than their loyalty to the constitution, institutions are now judged according to their loyalty to the demos (nearly half of whom voted Remain).
Leavers tried to stop parliament voting on whether to trigger Article 50 (and denounced the judges who made the ruling) and they tried to deny MPs a “meaningful vote” on the final deal. And Leavers have long accused the civil service of seeking to “sabotage” and “undermine” Brexit (just as Tony Benn warned Whitehall was thwarting socialism in the 1970s). But no government minister has done so with the effrontery of Steve Baker.
In the Commons earlier today, Baker, a Brexit minister and the former chair of the European Reform Group (the guardians of “hard Brexit”) was asked by Jacob Rees-Mogg whether “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”. When Baker replied that this was “essentially correct”, his departmental boss David Davis visibly winced.
Rees-Mogg was referring to an alleged conversation between Baker and Charles Grant, the respected director of the Centre for European Research (and an occasional NS contributor) at a Prospect magazine lunch during the Conservative conference.
Soon after the parliamentary exchange, Grant rebutted the claim: “I recall saying to Steve Baker that I was aware of research the Treasury had done. This apparently showed that the economic benefits of the UK forging free trade agreements with third countries outside the EU were significantly less than the economic costs of the leaving the customs union.”
“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.”
Grant’s account was endorsed by Conservative MP Antoinette Sandbach (who also attended the lunch). And Baker was implicitly rebuked by Jeremy Heywood, the long-serving head of the civil service, who tweeted: “Proud to address UK Civil Service analysts yesterday. Every day their great work supports the government in making evidence-based policy & helps deliver better public services across the country.”
Not for the first time, the Brexiteers are blaming others for their own failings. Every respected forecaster has estimated that their project will reduce economic growth (the only question being by how much). As Robert Chote, the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, told me last week on the subject of trade: “The reduction in openness likely with the EU is likely to outweigh any increase elsewhere”. But rather than questioning their own policy, the Brexiteers impugn the forecasters, who are cast not merely as wrong but malign.
Though the overwhelming majority of civil servants did vote Remain, there is no evidence that Whitehall is seeking to thwart Brexit. As Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, recently told me: “The civil service are there to deliver the programme of the democratically-elected government, where I think they find it difficult is when the government’s not clear about what its position is.”
Yet Baker, remarkably, retains the full backing of Downing Street. “The minister has set out the events as he recalls them, we have got no reason to question his account,” a No 10 spokesman said this afternoon. He added that the Prime Minister had “full confidence” in Baker and that he was doing a “good job”.
By contrast, Tory justice minister Phillip Lee, who tweeted that “It’s time for evidence, not dogma, to show the way”, received a verbal beating from the whips. If confirmation was needed of which group calls the shots in the Conservative Party, the treatment of Baker and Lee provides it.