UK businesses are being prevented from coming out in support of a British exit from the European Union due to threats from Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, it was claimed today by Vote Leave’s campaign director Dominic Cummings.
The allegations were made by Cummings during a three-hour grilling by the influential Treasury select committee, chaired by MP Andrew Tyrie.
According to Cummings, senior government officials threatened “bad things” would happen to businesses if they publicly came out in support of the UK voting to leave the EU on 23 June.
All sorts of people in the Cabinet Office call people all the time and make threats some more overt and some more covert. I don’t want to say that [cabinet secretary] Jeremy Heywood himself has particularly or specifically done anything, but everyone close to how government operates knows the power of the Cabinet Office and the power of the cabinet secretary and the power of subtly-worded, in a very English way, threats.
"Both officials and special advisers, it’s part of what their job description is," he told the group of MPs.
According to Cummings the same kind of things were done in 1999 when the government wanted business to support joining the euro.
Tyrie said Cummings should provide evidence to back up these claims if he has it, calling them "truly extraordinary".
During the mammoth session Cummings clashed with Tyrie over the potential savings the UK could make from leaving the EU.
Cummings said the country's savings could be as high as £20bn every year, and there would be a "lot of money to go around" to spend on the NHS, science and farming.
Cummings claimed the UK's annual net contribution to the EU's coffers was higher than official estimates – said be £19.1bn by the Office for National Statistics – and defended Vote Leave's headline claim that £350m could be freed up each week if the UK left the trading bloc.
Tyrie was unimpressed however, likening the claims to Aladdin's Cave, and saying Cummings was playing “fast and loose” with the facts.
Tyrie hit back with accusations Vote Leave has been misleading voters with leaflets that appear to be from the NHS, producing one of the offending articles.
Other MPs on the committee, which includes the pro-Brext MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, also levelled questions at Cummings, sparking drawn out debates on the common definition of the Single Market, the honesty of the Confederation of British Industry, and whether foreign office and Whitehall officials would be able to negotiate themselves “out of a paper bag”.
Committee MPs were scathing of Cummings' performance.
Genuinely alarmed at the behaviour of Dominic Cummings who runs Vote Leave, He seems to have no grip on reality at all. #StrongerIn— Helen Goodman (@HelenGoodmanMP) April 20, 2016
Treasury committee MPs are been known to enjoy the treatment Tyrie gives to those that are called to give evidence.
.@vote_leave's Cummings has just turned up to Treasury Cttee, says he's leaving when he needs to and been rude to Tyrie. Grab your popcorn.— Wes Streeting MP (@wesstreeting) April 20, 2016
Jacob Rees-Mogg asked Cummings whether David Cameron would trigger article 50, the legislation that says the UK or any other EU member can leave the EU at any time, immediately if Britain votes to leave the EU.
But Cummings said that would be a “crazy idea”, and doesn't think the Commons would allow that.
Mogg has donated cash to the Vote Leave campaign but not enough that it will need to be declared.
Arron Banks and Richard Tice of Leave.EU, and Matthew Elliot of Vote Leave were scheduled to attend the meeting but were unable to do so due to personal reasons.
Their appearances will be rearranged for a later date.