MPs from both the pro-EU and Eurosceptic camps criticised ministers during a Commons debate on the new EU referendum bill on Tuesday, saying the public would not trust a contest in which the government was allowed to spend cash to help one side of the campaign.
The row erupted because the government has decided there is no need for the usual Whitehall “purdah” – the period before an electoral contest in which the government is not allowed to take actions that could be seen as advantageous to either side.
The European Union referendum bill will therefore lift the usual restriction on the government publishing material relating to the referendum campaign for 28 days before the vote.
Dominic Grieve, the Tory former attorney general, who will probably vote to stay in the EU, expressed concern that the government may be trying to “load the dice” in its favour.
He told the Commons: “I think we have to be very careful to ensure that we provide a clear indication that it will be a level playing field and it will not be abused, and for that reason I do hope that the government will focus on this issue. Because the change which is being introduced – on a piece of legislation which we previously ourselves criticised as being deficient in this respect – can convey an impression that the government will come in and try to load the dice, and that must be avoided.”
On the other side, Owen Paterson, the strongly Eurosceptic Conservative former environment secretary, said the government’s arguments about not needing a period of purdah were “nonsense”.
“This is an absolutely fundamental issue,” he said. “If the public have a sense – and the British public have a real sense of fairness – if they have a sense that this was rigged, the result will not be legitimate.
“It absolutely must be taken on board by the government that if the British people sense there is no fairness, that this is being rigged against them, that a deluge of local government, of national government, and above all European government money and propaganda can be dropped on them ... that will be unacceptable.
“That will go down extremely badly with the British people, and what really worries me – this extraordinary moment in our history, this incredibly important moment – could be seen to be illegitimate.”
Tory backbencher Peter Bone said many people were “concerned about that the government will use the apparatus of state to push a case rather than letting the two sides have equal and fair access”.
The Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey subsequently expressed her strong support for those protesting about the lack of purdah. “I do not believe that will prove to the British people that the government wants a free and fair vote,” she said.
Since the bill was published, the Electoral Commission has declared itself “disappointed and concerned” by the proposal to lift campaign restrictions, warning that it undermined regulation and “could give an unfair advantage to one side of the argument”.
Explaining the decision, the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said the government would show “proper restraint” when it came to spending and had no intention of ordering doorstep mail-shots in the last four weeks of the campaign. But he said it would be “unworkable and inappropriate” to stop the government publishing material that deals with any issue raised by the referendum question.
“Ministers will want to be able to continue making the case up to referendum day without being constrained by fears that, for example, the posting of comments on Twitter accounts could constitute publication,” he said.
Hammond was also supported by Labour, which is likely to campaign on the same side as Cameron for continued membership of a reformed EU. Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, said the opposition party saw no need for a period of purdah.
“I agree with the foreign secretary in this respect – I do think that once the government eventually reaches a view, the government is entitled to explain to the British people what its view is,” he said. “Indeed it is going to have to explain its view to some of the members of the cabinet.”
Introducing the second reading debate on the European Union referendum bill, Hammond said the legislation “sets in stone our commitment to hold the referendum before the end of 2017”.
“Of course, if the process is completed sooner, the referendum could be held sooner,” he added, without saying exactly when the prime minister would set out his specific demands for a new relationship with Brussels.
The bill is likely to pass on Tuesday afternoon, after the Conservatives made two failed attempts to get it through parliament under the coalition when it was blocked by the Lib Dems and Labour.
There was also protest in the Commons from some on the Labour benches and the Green MP Caroline Lucas about the government’s refusal to allow 16 and 17-year-olds a say.
This was dismissed by Hammond, who said: “Some will argue that we should extend the franchise further to 16 and 17-year-olds perhaps or even to citizens of other EU countries resident here. We do not agree. This is an issue of national importance about Britain’s relationship with the EU and is is right that the Westminster parliamentary franchise should be the basis for consulting the British people.”
Cameron is facing the prospect of a mutiny in his cabinet if he does not allow them to campaign freely on either side of the debate. He initially suggested earlier this week that they would all be bound by collective responsibility, before backtracking and suggesting that the media had misinterpreted his remarks.
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