Theresa May’s fragile hold on her party was yet again on display with her inability to punish a minister who wrongly repeated a claim that independent officials were plotting to keep the U.K. in the European Union.
The suggestion that civil servants — who are expected to be impartial — might be deliberately skewing economic forecasts to influence the outcome of talks with the EU, was as Brexit Minister Steve Baker put it to Parliament: “an extraordinary allegation.” But not one he entirely rejected.
The prime minister’s office said it had “no reason” to doubt Baker, even after the man he cited as his source denied ever saying it. Only when a recording of their conversation was released — and Baker himself had apologized — did May acknowledge that he might have been wrong.
Even then, she insisted the matter was closed.
“What I understand the minister did was to reflect what he thought somebody else had said at a meeting,” May told Channel 5 News at the end of a three-day visit to China. “He has now recalled that was not right. He is going to apologize.”
At the heart of the row is the question of how close a relationship Britain should seek with the EU after Brexit. Baker and others in May’s Conservative Party want maximum distance. The prime minister, without a majority in Parliament or the confidence of her lawmakers, cannot afford to offend them.
But others in her government, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, argue for only a “modest” separation from the EU to protect the economy. As this is also the view of most opposition lawmakers, it is the only Brexit position that is likely to win a vote in Parliament.
Unable to confront the so-called Brexiteers, yet unable to deliver the kind of Brexit they want via a vote, May has opted to keep her own position vague.
“She has got these two sides who are diametrically opposed on some issues and it is being kept together,” Conservative lawmaker Johnny Mercer told the BBC on Friday. The prime minister is the “best and the only option” to lead the party, he said, before adding the caveat, “at the moment.”
Asked in Shanghai about economic studies that support closer ties to the EU, May said it might not be a decisive argument.
Will of People
“It’s important of course that the government looks at the analysis that is available,” May told ITV News. “But of course it’s also important that the government does what the British people want us to do — the British people want us to leave the European Union, and that is what we will be doing.”
All sides are arguing their cases in public, while the government’s position frequently depends on which minister is talking. After the Financial Times reported Friday that May’s officials were considering asking the EU for a new customs union, Trade Secretary Liam Fox told Bloomberg this must not happen.
The split came to a head after economic analysis conducted by government officials on various Brexit scenarios was leaked to BuzzFeed. It showed, as most other studies have, that the more barriers that exist between the U.K. and the EU, the greater the hit to trade. Even more problematic for those arguing for complete separation, the analysis also showed that trade deals with more distant countries would not offset the impact.
Some Conservative lawmakers say this is analysis that should never have been carried out.
Baker was told the research existed in October by Charles Grant, who runs the Center For European Reform. But when Baker referred to their conversation in Parliament on Thursday, he took a different tone.
Baker was asked by Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the anti-EU European Research Group, if it was correct that Grant had said “officials in the Treasury had deliberately developed a model to show that all options other than staying in the Customs Union were bad.” Baker, to the surprise of other lawmakers and apparently his own boss, said that it was.
Only after a recording of the October meeting with Grant was released did Baker say he’d got his account wrong. He told Parliament on Friday that he “should have corrected or dismissed” the premise of Rees-Mogg’s question.
It was the second time in three days that Baker had criticized civil servants. On Tuesday, he said that their forecasts were “always wrong.”
Rees-Mogg though, stuck to his criticism of the analysis. “The underlying assumptions that the Treasury are basing its forecasts upon are designed to produce a bad outcome from the forecast,” he told a university event in London on Thursday evening.
Fights like this are damaging the Conservative Party, lawmaker Mercer said. “We have to do better on a domestic agenda, we have to start answering some of the fundamental questions of our time,” he told the BBC. “There is more to this party than Europe.”