A Brexit minister has avoided being sacked but was forced into a Commons apology for raising allegations which suggested Treasury officials were trying to keep Britain in the customs union.
Steve Baker said he should have corrected or dismissed an account of the claim relayed to the Commons by Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, which he initially described as “essentially correct” and “extraordinary”.
He appeared in the Commons at the start of business on Friday to correct the record and apologise, hours after Prime Minister Theresa May insisted she would not sack him from his ministerial role.
The storm erupted after leading Brexiteer Mr Rees-Mogg asked the minister to confirm if he had heard from Charles Grant, of the Centre for European Reform think tank, 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”.
Mr Grant strongly denied the claim and Mr Baker later had to backtrack when audio recordings showed his recollection was inaccurate.
Raising a point of order, Mr Baker told the Commons: “In the context of that audio, I accept I should have corrected or dismissed the premise of my honourable friend’s question.
“I have apologised to Mr Charles Grant, who is an honest and trustworthy man.
“As I’ve put on record many times, I have the highest regard for our hard-working civil servants.
“I’m grateful for this early opportunity to correct the record and I apologise to the House.”
Questioned on the row during her visit to China, Mrs May insisted that civil servants and ministers were “working together” to deliver the best possible Brexit.
Asked by Channel 5 News whether she would sack Mr Baker, the Prime Minister replied: “No. The ministerial code says that the minister should take the earliest opportunity to amend the record that he has given to Parliament and apologise to Parliament. He will do that.
“What I understand the minister did was to reflect what he thought somebody else had said at a meeting. He has now recalled that was not right, he is going to apologise, he is going to ensure that the record in Hansard is correct so that Parliament is not misled when that record is read in the future.
“That’s what the ministerial code asks him to do and that is what he will be doing.”
Downing Street had initially said there was no reason to question Mr Baker’s version of events, before adding he had made a “genuine mistake” after the tape was released by Prospect magazine.
Mr Baker’s initial claims had provoked a furious backlash from the union representing senior civil servants, which accused him of being irresponsible and “cowardly” for failing to challenge the “conspiracy theory”.
The controversy comes hot on the heels of Mr Baker drawing fire earlier in the week for dismissing Whitehall forecasts as “always wrong”.