Sir Leigh Lewis: Rees-Mogg’s contemptible Treasury accusations are unworthy of public debate

Written by Sir Leigh Lewis on 5 February 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

Comments by the prominent Brexiteer accusing Treasury officials of manipulating forecasts on the impact of leaving the EU reveal a man utterly unsuited to high office, says the former Department for Work and Pensions perm sec

Photo: ITV

I have never met Jacob Rees-Mogg.

I do not agree with his views on Brexit but I absolutely respect his right to hold and espouse them.

But when I heard him on the Today programme on Saturday accuse Treasury officials, in terms, of ‘fiddling the figures’ I was astonished and appalled in equal measure.

Leave to one side the self-evident truth that had the Treasury document in question supported his view of the likely consequences of Brexit he would have been on the Today programme citing it in support of his case rather than attacking the integrity of its authors.



Leave to one side that the actual evidence – as opposed to the hyperbolic claims made by Jacob Rees Mogg and his supporters – clearly supports the thrust of the Treasury analysis. UK economic growth is now lagging behind almost the whole of the industrialised world; major employers are clearly delaying investment decisions and, in some cases, already moving staff out of the UK; every respected economic figure and forecaster – most recently the Governor of the Bank of England – has said pretty much the same as the Treasury.

Leave to one side even that attacking the messenger has always been the ultimate sign of weakness of those who dislike the message being brought.

All of this is in the end part of the ongoing rough and tumble of political debate over the fall-out from probably the most momentous single decision in British post-war history.

But what made the Rees Mogg claim different in kind was what it reveals about him and his character.

To accuse of dishonesty public servants who have no opportunity to reply is frankly contemptible. To do so without adducing a shred of evidence to support his charge other than the fact that he disagreed with the content of the document is infantile; it would not survive as an argument in a court of law for one moment. To attack ‘Treasury officials’ as a group rather than, if he really had the courage of his convictions, by name is akin to cowardice. Would he have dared to accuse the Treasury’s permanent secretary or, say, its chief economic adviser by name of ‘fiddling the figures’?

This is a man who some talk of as a future leader of the Conservative Party, even as a future prime minister. On the basis of this episode alone he should be considered utterly unsuited to high office.

There is a simple way out. Apologise. Make clear that, while you continue to disagree profoundly with the Treasury analysis, that while you may believe – if indeed you do – that it reflects an establishment view that you consider at odds with the views of the British public, that you nevertheless regret having accused public servants of dishonesty and unreservedly withdraw that accusation. That, Mr Rees-Mogg, would be the act of a serious and honourable man. Anything less will leave you profoundly unworthy to engage in proper and adult political debate.

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Sir Leigh Lewis
About the author

Sir Leigh Lewis was permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions from 2005-10. Among his current roles he is vice chair of the homelessness charity St Mungo’s

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Comments

Peter Bennet

Submitted on 6 February, 2018 - 19:37
Politicians have criticised the civil service before: For example, Tony Benn wrote “If British officials had to choose between the waning powers of British ministers and the British Parliament and the growing strength of the European bureaucracy, they would choose the latter. Every minister who has a big volume of European business is represented on a whole host of committees in Europe by officials. This move towards official control is a shift from Parliament to officials.” Should civil servants be above scrutiny?

Peter Bennet

Submitted on 6 February, 2018 - 19:40
Should civil servants be above scrutiny? Politicians have criticised the civil service before: For example, Tony Benn wrote “If British officials had to choose between the waning powers of British ministers and the British Parliament and the growing strength of the European bureaucracy, they would choose the latter. Every minister who has a big volume of European business is represented on a whole host of committees in Europe by officials. This move towards official control is a shift from Parliament to officials.”

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