Iain Duncan Smith is prepared to ignore the orders of the head of the civil service and demand full access to all documents produced by his department in relation to the EU referendum, BuzzFeed News understands, putting him in direct conflict with David Cameron.
The work and pensions secretary has no intention of abiding by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood's ruling that anti-EU ministers should not be able to use civil service resources to help them make the case for leaving the EU. Instead he is thought to have told his departmental staff to continue to supply him with briefings and to inform him if they are passing information to Downing Street that could help the pro-EU campaign.
“My civil servants report to me, not Jeremy Heywood,” Duncan Smith is said to have told friends when discussing the issue. “It’s me who’s got the seals of state, not him.
“I have told them that all European Union documents must pass across my desk. I trust my staff not to withhold information.”
The prime minister had hoped to avoid tearing his party apart during the referendum campaign by minimising the number of Tory-on-Tory attacks during the run-up to June's vote. However, the row over access to official documents is already threatening to split the cabinet, with Eurosceptic Conservative MPs queuing up in the House of Commons on Monday to denounce the decision as an unfair establishment stitch-up by the civil service.
The work and pensions secretary's determination to make his departmental staff ignore orders issued by the cabinet secretary shows this split goes to the very highest levels of government, even though cabinet is nominally continuing as normal while ministers campaign on different sides of the referendum debate.
Heywood's official guidance states it would "not be appropriate or permissible" for civil servants to "support ministers who oppose the government’s official position by providing briefing or speech material on this matter". It is thought one of the reasons for creating this policy was the threat that Duncan Smith could use his ministerial position to produce research showing the relatively small impact of the EU benefits reforms agreed by Cameron.
Duncan Smith is well-established in his department, where he has served since 2010, and apparently believes his personal relationships with top officials will make it harder for them to refuse to show him documents. However, it could put civil servants hired to serve the official government position in the awkward situation of being in direct conflict with their immediate boss.
The row is another sign that the EU referendum will result in clashes between top level ministers, raising doubts over whether anti-EU Conservatives minister such as Duncan Smith will be able to continue in their government jobs after 23 June, regardless of the referendum result.
Earlier on Monday the cabinet minister Priti Patel issued a statement claiming the civil servants' decision to restrict access to briefing was an "unconstitutional act" that would undermine the civil service, and Heywood himself is due to appear in parliament on Tuesday to be questioned by MPs on the matter.
However, minister Matthew Hancock has defended the decision to MPs during a House of Commons debate, saying: "All ministers can ask for factual briefing and for facts to be checked in any matter. All ministers can see documents on EU issues not related to the referendum question as normal."
Cameron himself said the row over access to official paper had got "completely out of proportion", because "the government isn’t neutral on this: the government has a clear position".
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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