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Friday, February 02, 2018

A question of honour

I am old enough to remember Lord Carrington resigning as Margaret Thatcher's Foreign Secretary over mistakes that were made in the run-up to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. He believed in ministers taking responsibility for their actions and those of their subordinates and civil servants. He would never had stood up in the Houses of Parliament and maligned a public official, no matter what the circumstances.

What a contrast with the rather sorry affair of Steve Baker, a minister in the prosaically named Department for Exiting the European Union, who has been accused of maligning the civil service twice in a week after telling MPs that economic forecasts by officials were “always wrong” before then airing claims that civil servants had deliberately produced negative reports saying the economy would be damaged by Brexit to influence policy.

The row was sparked when Baker was asked by Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to confirm that a Europe expert had told him Treasury officials “had deliberately developed a impact assessment 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, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, muttered an instruction to say that it “didn’t happen” and grimaced when Baker replied that Rees-Mogg’s comment was “essentially correct” and said it would be “quite extraordinary” if true.

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 Conservative party conference. Several individuals present at the event challenged the claim, including Grant himself and Antoinette Sandbach, a Tory MP.

After audio emerged of the exchange, Baker said his answer was based on an “honest recollection of the conversation” but he stood corrected. He added that he would apologise to Grant and clarify his comments in parliament.

If Baker had even a portion of Lord Carrington's sense of honour and commitment to constitutional propriety he would resign immediately. That the Prime Minister is prepared to let him soldier on following an apology to Parliament is a sign of her own weakness, the dysfunctional nature and incompetence of her own government and the way in which she is beholden to Brexiteers such as Rees-Mogg for her position.
Guido Fawkes has a reproduction of an earlier Tweet from Grant which tends to confirm the latter's opinions. The whole affair does nothing for the reputations of Grant, Baker or Davis who seems to have no control over his own ministers.
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