Damian Green rejects civil service ‘conspiracy theories’ – and says some ministers don’t like evidence
Sacked first secretary of state calls for publication of Brexit analysis as more MPs accuse the Treasury of blocking leave plans
Damian Green, who was the minister responsible for the civil service until he was sacked from the Cabinet last year. Credit: PA
Former Cabinet Office minister Damian Green has come out to defend civil servants after a series of attacks from Brexit-backing MPs, including the accusation by influential Tory backbencher Jacob Rees-Moggs that Treasury officials are “fiddling the figures” on their economic forecasts.
In his first interview since being forced to resign due to allegations of inappropriate behaviour, Green said there was “a great problem of politicians who won’t accept evidence”.
Prime minister Theresa May’s former deputy, he also called for all Brexit analyses being produced by Whitehall to be published.
Green was interviewed for a BBC Radio 4 documentary on how the civil service is preparing for Brexit, alongside MPs Bernard Jenkin and David Jones, who accused some departments – the Treasury in particular – of “foot-dragging” on Brexit.
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Damian Green, who was first secretary of state and the minister responsible for the civil service between June and December 2017, told the BBC: “I do reject all the conspiracy theories that suggest there’s some sort of plot inside the official machine to thwart the will of the people and I think language like that is never helpful.”
He criticised “politicians who would prefer not to have the evidence there”, though he said they were “not so much” his former Cabinet colleagues.
“There’s a great problem of politicians who won’t accept evidence,” he said, adding that no economic forecast is 100% accurate but politicians must rely on them to an extent and look at evidence provided by civil servants, albeit sceptically. “If you reject evidence you don’t like then you’re likely to end up producing faith-based policies.”
Green was sacked after an investigation launched by his own department found he had lied about porn found on his computer in 2008, and thereby breached the ministerial code.
Speaking to BBC reporter Ben Wright this week he also waded in on the debate led by Labour MPs over whether Whitehall’s Brexit impact assessments should be made public.
“If analysis is being produced then publish it,” Green said. “And frankly there will be a big political debate about it – let’s have this argument in public, that’s what democracies do.”
Former DExEU minister David Jones, told the BBC that he’d experienced “total enthusiasm and willingness” from his civil servants – but he added that Treasury officials were a “huge roadblock” to progress on leaving the EU.
There is a “constitutional aversion” to Brexit within the Treasury, which is trying to "drag the process out and soften it", he said.
“Probably the last of the remain tendency are deep within the bowels of the Treasury,” he said, clarifying that he was referring to both officials and ministers, who he said always work closely together “but never more closely than at the Treasury”.
Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – which is running an inquiry into civil service effectiveness – said Whitehall needs “very clear leadership” on Brexit.
“There are ministers in the Treasury who perhaps want to change government policy, and it’s very difficult for civil servants to know what to do if they’re getting mixed messages from different departments and different bits of Whitehall,” he said.
“Some departments are foot dragging, some departments are powering ahead… departments respond to the ministerial direction that they’re given.”
Jill Rutter, Brexit programme director at think tank the Institute for Government, agreed that Whitehall structures could pose a risks to delivering a successful Brexit. She called on DExEU, the new Cabinet Office unit headed by Brexit sherpa Olly Robbins and the prime minister to take responsibility for ensuring departmental plans are “properly stress-tested”.
Jones, a leave campaigner, also revealed that Brexit secretary David Davis had mooted “Department X” as an alternative name for DExEU, which Jones said had the “suitably sinister overtones” that appealed to Davis as a former special forces officer.
Jones said the department had briefly considered getting its own cat, to rival No 10’s Larry and Palmerston of the Foreign Office.
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