Sometimes, the mask slips. In the Commons this week, Jacob Rees-Mogg, famously the gentleman, slandered a studious and respected think-tanker and some identifiable Treasury officials. He did this by repeating a piece of hearsay, echoing it back to the colleague he’d heard it from, so that parliament and the public could hear it too. Mr Rees-Mogg’s question showed signs of careful preparation and there will be speculation that the pair (the colleague was a minister) had colluded in this exchange. Perhaps. The involuntary wince on the face of the Brexit secretary David Davis spoke volumes.
The story was entirely false. The House has now heard an apology from Rees-Mogg’s ministerial colleague. But from Gentleman Jake? From the man who published the story? Only slippery evasion.
In parliament on Thursday Rees-Mogg asked Steve Baker, a junior Brexit minister, a question. Would Baker confirm that Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, had told Baker over lunch that Treasury officials “had deliberately developed an impact assessment 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”.
From the dispatch box Baker replied. This was “essentially correct”. He fumbled as Labour opponents challenged him, and said he was only confirming that he had heard the allegation. He added that it would be “extraordinary” if true.
Hours later, Prospect magazine, which had hosted the lunch, posted the audio recording. Mr Grant had said no such thing. Yesterday morning Baker apologised. Rees-Mogg has not.
He should. Instead he issued a volley of irritable tweets last night suggesting (incorrectly) that Treasury officials would have been breaking the rules if they talked to research institutes, unless bidden by ministers. Senior civil servants talk routinely to research institutes; it’s their job. He then suggested the chancellor may have been freelancing. One more person to whom he now owes an apology.
And the incident is revealing. Wrong-footed, his good manners depart and snarls break through the politesse. His cloak of courtesy slipping so easily on and off his shoulders, Rees-Mogg deserves the writer Robert Harris’s appraisal, “a barmaid’s idea of a gentleman”. Barmaids deserve better, though. They see through men more easily than the eager young Tory boys of the ConservativeHome website.
It’s revealing, too, about the Brexit ultras: so blinded by zealotry as to think it even remotely likely that senior civil servants would cook the figures; so blinded by zealotry as not even to check with the alleged source of the story — but instead to take a flyer with the facts and the proprieties in the cause of some supposed greater good: Brexit.
With a complicit prime minister and a supine cabinet trailing in its wake, Europhobia — this mutant gene in the Conservative body politic now spreading its cancer through the whole government — is moving from idiocy to dishonesty.
There were scrupulous assessments, said ministers, of the impact of Brexit on the British economy. Then they didn’t exist. Then they did, and would be published. This proved a bag of wind, scrabbled together, vacuous. Then it emerged via the Buzzfeed website that the Treasury had indeed done some careful work; and some was leaked. Then ministers said the work was incomplete and hadn’t been signed off by ministers and didn’t represent government thinking and wouldn’t be given to MPs — and anyway they could see it once negotiations were complete (bejesus). Then MPs insisted on seeing it, so ministers said it would be handed over — but only to Hilary Benn, Labour chairman of the Brexit committee.
Oh for pity’s sake. If you’re going to set a nation on a daring but risky course, you examine the options — of course you do. You do the cost-benefit analyses — that’s what civil servants are for. Some of the reports will describe costs. How could it be otherwise? There is every reason why ministers should have wanted these studies, no reason to be ashamed they exist, and every reason to be open about both the process and the results. If you believe in Brexit, where’s the shame in acknowledging that there are costs and uncertainties and you wanted to know and face up to them? You then add that civil servants are naturally precise about costs but cautious about benefits, but that you can see the bigger, brighter picture.
So why all the furtiveness? “Disingenuous” doesn’t do it justice. This is fraud.
Isn’t it now clear that the government doesn’t believe in what it’s doing, can’t even decide how to do it, hasn’t the guts to say so, and is trying to creep forward under cover of fog, wretchedly hoping something will turn up? If Theresa May and her cabinet were a prisoner in the dock, mumbling and stumbling, avoiding our eyes, and under pressure dribbling out banalities, repetitions and evasions, the jury would need about thirty seconds to decide. Guilt is all over the pages of this contemptible Tory story. They know (most of them) that the referendum placed voters in an impossible position. They know that, narrowly, the voters made a mistake. They can see this is becoming plain. They know — the majority that are not zealots — that our party is now acting against the interests of our country. And nobody has the spine to say so. They speak to us, this sane majority of Tory backbenchers and ministers, like hostages with a gun to their head telling the world that everything’s OK. And the gun is being held by perhaps fewer than fifty zealots: about a sixth of them.
Eden lied about Suez and his government concealed its purpose; but he believed in that purpose and believed it to be in the national interest. Blair dissimulated about Iraq and his government used dark arts to clear its path. But he believed in the adventure and believed it to be in the national interest.
Brexit is worse. The means are the same as with Suez and Iraq but half the cabinet and most of the parliamentary party don’t even believe in the ends. I seriously doubt whether Boris Johnson does. A terrified, paralysed prime minister leads a seasick party and doubting government towards she knows not what.
Wickedness may not always lie in the carrying forward of bad projects. It may also lie in allowing oneself to be carried forward by them, knowing their wrongfulness. Perhaps that is the more culpable, for zealots at least believe their madness. A special kind of guilt attaches to the sane majority of the Conservative Party today. It is written across their faces.