The Malthouse compromisers? L-R: Theresa Villiers, Nicky Morgan, Damian Green, Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson leave the Cabinet Office after a meeting of the alternative arrangements working group
Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has been urged by MPs to set out the extent of civil service involvement in talks over the so-called ‘Malthouse compromise’ on Brexit after concerns were raised that officials' involvement in the talks would contravene the cabinet manual.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable and seven of the party’s other MPs wrote to Sedwill yesterday asking him to confirm whether civil servants were involved in the talks of the alternative arrangements working group, which is attempting to develop an alternative to the Irish backstop embedded in the UK-EU exit deal.
After parliament last week passed a motion indicating the deal would be approved if the backstop was removed, the group of Conservative MPs developed a number of proposals that could be put to the European Union.
The so-called 'Malthouse compromise' plan to try and break the Commons Brexit deadlock over prime minister Theresa May's deal with the EU includes trade and customs arrangements intended to avoid the backstop. It also includes proposals for a no-deal exit, albeit with a transition period, if these arrangements are turned down.
The development of the plan, which was named after housing minister Kit Malthouse after he brought together one-time remain supporting Conservatives Nicky Morgan and Stephen Hammond with top Brexiteers Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg, led to the creation of the alternative working group.
It has been meeting this week in the Cabinet Office, with ministers including Brexit secretary Steve Barclay, other MPs and officials present. Cable said he would “question whether using civil servants to support a backbench initiative is either a sensible use of taxpayers’ money or maintains the much-valued independence and impartiality of civil servants”.
He highlighted sections of the cabinet manual, which sets out the laws, rules and conventions for the conduct of government, that he said indicated civil servants should not be involved in the talks, as well as the section highlighting the importance of ministers maintaining the political impartiality of the civil service and not using public funds for party political purposes.
“If civil servants have been used in this way, please could you confirm how much civil service time has been spent and at what cost on supporting Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nicky Morgan, whether any ongoing support is going to be provided and whether any civil servants have complained,” said Cable.
In response to the letter, a government spokesperson said: “These discussions are routine ministerial meetings which as normal require support from the civil service.”