Steve Baker has been accused of undermining the government he is part of, after upsetting civil servants for the second time this week.
The Brexit minister this morning confirmed backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg's claim that he had heard from Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, that “officials in the Treasury have 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".
Baker said: “I am sorry to say that my honourable friend’s account is essentially correct [that Grant had made this claim].”
He added: "At the time I considered it implausible because my direct experience is that civil servants are extraordinarily careful to uphold the impartiality of the civil service. I think we must proceed with great caution in this matter but I heard him raise this issue. I think we need to be very careful not to take this forward in an inappropriate way… I think it would be quite extraordinary if it turned out that such a thing had happened."
But Baker's equivocal acceptance of Rees-Mogg's comments have been attacked by the FDA union, which represents civil servants.
General secretary Dave Penman said: "To stand at the despatch box and refuse to challenge a half-baked conspiracy theory about the civil service – one that even now is being disowned by its supposed source – is the height of irresponsibility from a serving minister.
"It's not good enough for Mr Baker to simply shrug his shoulders and allow unfounded accusations about officials to go unchallenged. Every day civil servants put their personal views to one side and work tirelessly to implement the decision of ministers – and they do so with a professionalism that puts the likes of Mr Baker to shame.
"These cowardly actions are beneath the office he holds and Mr Baker risks seriously undermining the government he is part of."
This is the second time this week Baker has incurred the wrath of the civil service. On Tuesday he was slammed by the FDA after he claimed the leak of a document analysing the economic impact of Brexit had been motivated by a desire to undermine the process. He also, repeatedly, rubbished such analyses.
Update: The CER's Grant has issued a statement, confirming that he told Baker about the findings of the economic analysis, but not that it had been developed purposely
“I recall saying to Steve Baker at a Prospect lunch at the Conservative Party conference that I was aware of research that the Treasury had done. This apparently showed that the economic benefits of the UK forging FTAs with third countries outside the EU were significantly less than the economic costs of leaving the customs union. I did not say or imply that the Treasury had deliberately developed a model to show that all non-customs union options were bad, with the intention to influence policy,” Grant said.
His statement also suggests that the government was aware of the analysis as early as the start of October last year, which is much earlier than ministers including David Davis have so far implied.