The European Commission leaked details of an apparently tense dinner with Theresa May to undermine the Conservatives and favour the opposition parties in the general election, the health secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Sunday.
Appearing on the BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show, Hunt was asked to elaborate on the prime minister's claim last week that the leaks were "deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election".
Asked if May's comments meant the government believed the UK's European allies were trying to damage the Conservatives' bid to strengthen their parliamentary majority, Hunt said: "Well, that must be the presumption."
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, told another BBC programme on Sunday it was "extraordinary" that Brussels was using such "aggressive" negotiating tactics when there was an election taking place in Britain.
"It seems very clear that they did meddle in so far as they put out these very unhelpful, slightly hostile comments," Rudd told Pienaar's Politics on BBC Radio 5 Live.
Reports of the meeting between May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, in the German press last month sparked a diplomatic row that has raised concerns about how far apart both sides seem to be on crucial issues ahead of the formal withdrawal talks.
Juncker is said to have left the meeting at Downing Street "10 times more sceptical" about Britain's position on Brexit. He is said to have told other European leaders that May is kidding herself about the outcome Britain can expect to achieve from the negotiations.
The bust-up has raised concerns on both sides that Britain will crash out of the EU in two years without an agreement about its future relationship – an outcome that many analysts say would be economically, legally, and politically disastrous.
May initially shrugged off the reports as "Brussels gossip", but then last week delivered a blistering response outside Number 10 in which she accused European leaders of plotting to "sabotage" the talks to deliberately undermine Britain.
Interviewing Hunt on Sunday morning, Marr asked the health secretary if the prime minister believed Brussels was trying to sway the general election in favour of Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
Hunt at first seemed to not want to answer that question directly. "Well, I think, you know, they didn't have to leak those reports to newspapers of dinners that happened in the middle of an election campaign."
"So why did they do it?" Marr replied.
"Well, it is the wrong approach to negotiations. We want good negotiations, we want a good outcome."
Marr pushed: "Sorry, the prime minister said this was about trying to fix our election, and I'm just asking you, 'How are they trying to fix this election and in whose favour?'"
"Well, you know, you'll have to ask them why they chose to do that," Hunt said, "but I think the answer is very clear that they are trying to leak reports that undermine Theresa May's position."
"So they're trying to damage the Conservatives in this election?" Marr said.
"I think what the British people know..."
"I'm sorry I have to press you on this," Marr persisted. "Are they trying to damage the Conservatives in this election, in your view?"
"Well, that must be the presumption," Hunt said. "And what we're saying is they shouldn't be doing that because this is an election for the British people to decide."
Marr said: "So the commission is intervening in this election to try to damage the Conservative cause and therefore to benefit the opposition parties?"
Hunt replied: "We're saying we don't want that to happen. It shouldn't happen, and this must be a decision for the British people."
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at email@example.com.
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