David Cameron has bowed to pressure from Tory Eurosceptics and other parties at Westminster by ruling out holding the referendum on Britain’s EU membership on the same date as the Scottish and other devolved elections next May.
The prime minister has agreed that the parliamentary bill paving the way for the referendum will be amended to exclude the date of 5 May 2016 for the poll, as he seeks to avoid his first parliamentary defeat since the election.
A government source said: “We’ve listened to the views expressed from MPs across the House and agreed that we won’t hold the referendum on the same day as legislature elections.”
The decision, which marks something of a personal U-turn for the prime minister, comes as ministers prepare to offer reassurances to Eurosceptic Tory MPs who fear a burst of government spending is planned in favour of a pro-EU vote. Ministers are prepared to make clear in the referendum bill that glossy publications paid from public funds will not be despatched to households in the final phase of the campaign, known as the “purdah” period.
The government faces the prospect of a series of defeats on the timing and funding of the EU referendum as Eurosceptic Tories have found common cause with Labour and the SNP over the parliamentary bill.
The decision to rule out 5 May 2016 also avoids a conflict with the Electoral Commission, which had said the poll should not be held on the same day as a series of devolved elections across the UK. The prime minister had dismissed these concerns last week when he told MPs: “It was possible to have the AV referendum and other elections on the same day. I think people are capable of making two decisions.”
Government sources said they were still standing by their fundamental principle on the timing of the referendum: that it would be determined by the pace of the prime minister’s renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership terms. This means that if the negotiations conclude by next spring, the prime minister will simply delay the referendum to June or July next year.
The government is prepared to reach out to Eurosceptics on another front by giving undertakings, possibly by amending the referendum bill, to guarantee a commitment made by Philip Hammond. The foreign secretary said last week that public funds would not be used to send out pro-EU leaflets in the final phase of the campaign. This is known as the 28-day “purdah” period.
Some Whitehall sources suggested that a vote on a rebel amendment could be avoided if the government signalled that it was prepared to amend the legislation to set Hammond’s commitment in stone. Labour will table an amendment calling on the government to specify in which areas public funds would be spent in the final phase of the campaign. Parliament would then have to authorise these items.
But ministers are adamant that they will seek to relax the purdah rules to allow the government machinery to play a role in the final phase of the campaign. Downing Street believes that section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act of 2000, governing the purdah rules, are unworkable for two reasons.
In the first place, ministers say the government needs to be able to carry on its normal business. There are fears that a failure to amend the 2000 act would mean that ministers could be severely restrained from speaking at EU meetings or responding to judgments from the European court of justice during the purdah period. There is a suggestion that civil service press officers would be barred from distributing remarks by the prime minister at EU summits.
In the second place, the government is clear that it will not be neutral during the referendum campaign. The prime minister hopes to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and then to campaign for a yes vote to stay in the EU.
Alex Salmond, the former Scottish first minister, who is the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman at Westminster, said of the U-turn on the referendum date: “The government faced retreat or defeat on this issue. It was clear that the Tories were angling to hijack Scottish elections with the EU referendum, and the united opposition have blown them off course.
“This is very much the shape of things to come, and has hopefully taught this arrogant Tory government to cease their disrespect towards the nations of Scotland and Wales and the people of Northern Ireland. There will be more Tory retreats and defeats before this bill is through.”
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