Jacob Rees-Mogg’s criticism of a doctor who advised the government on the Yellowhammer documents was the deciding factor for Phillip Lee to leave the Tories for the Lib Dems.
David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist with Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust, called an LBC phone-in show and asked the leader of the Commons what mortality rate he would accept if the UK were to leave the EU without a deal.
Rees-Mogg snapped back at the doctor: “I don’t think there’s any reason to suppose that a no-deal Brexit should lead to a mortality rate.
“I think this is the worst excess of Project Fear and I’m surprised that a doctor in your position would be fear-mongering in this way on public radio.”
Speaking to Sky News, Liberal Democrat MP Phillip Lee cited the interview as being the “straw that broke the camel’s back” ahead of his defection from the Conservative Party.
Dr Lee said: “Jacob Rees-Mogg was just disgraceful in his manner and the way in which he spoke to a member of my profession.
“So if I am going to cite an incident, the straw that broke the camel’s back, it was that.
“It was disgraceful, it was about ignoring evidence, it was about showing disrespect to experts, to people with professional standing and knowledge.”
Rees-Mogg has since compared Dr Nicholl to Dr Wakefield – the man discredited research linking autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine prompted many parents to stop their children being immunised.
Speaking in the House of Commons the Brexiteer told MPs: “Preparations are in place and they are being done with remarkable efficiency. But yes, a lot of Remainers wish to make our skins crawl.
“What he had to say, I will repeat it, is as irresponsible as Dr Wakefield in threatening that people will die because we leave the European Union. What level of irresponsibility was that?
“And I’m afraid it seems to me that Dr David Nicoll is as irresponsible as Dr Wakefield.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said Rees-Mogg’s comments were “irresponsible”, while Liberal Democrat MP Dr Sarah Wollaston said they were “absolutely disgusting”.
Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire called on Rees-Mogg to apologise for his remarks, but he insisted it was “scaremongering” to suggest people may die as a result of Brexit.
He said: “I’ll reiterate it because I think this doctor’s behaviour was disgraceful, and to scaremonger and to say that people are going to die because of Brexit is thoroughly irresponsible and unbefitting to his role.”
The doctor in question told the Guardian that he will take no lessons from a “muppet” with no medical qualifications.
“If he has got doubts about my probity, I am more than happy to be referred to the GMC.
“I am not bothered about Jacob Rees-Mogg. I’m not going to take a single word of health lessons from a muppet like him. What does he know about epilepsy or neuropathic pain?” he added.
“What I am worried about is my patients. To suggest I am wrong in what I say is defamatory. When, as I have done, I look people in the eye and say some of the drugs they are on might be in short supply and who are understandably worried, what he says about me is ridiculous.”