David Cameron has narrowly avoided his first defeat of this parliament at the hands of his Eurosceptic rebels after Labour abstained in a vote on the rules governing Whitehall activity during the EU referendum campaign.
Twenty-seven backbench Conservatives voted against the government’s plans to scrap the traditional period known as “purdah” before the EU referendum – the time during which Whitehall machinery is meant to remain neutral in the runup to an election.
Had Labour chosen to join the rebellion, Cameron – with his majority of just 12 – would have been defeated.
Although the government won with 288 votes, the rebellion provided the first public taste of cross-party cooperation between Labour and Tory Eurosceptics – likely to intensify in the runup to the referendum.
The effort to defeat the government was led by Bill Cash, a veteran Tory Eurosceptic, who joined forced with fellow Tories and Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins to table an amendment that would restore strict purdah rules set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act of 2000. These are designed to prevent the government machinery involving itself in the final 28 days of a referendum campaign.
His amendment was also backed by 27 Tories, including four of Cameron’s own former cabinet ministers: Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, David Jones and Owen Paterson.
They were joined in the no lobby by SNP members, Ukip’s single MP, a handful of Labour MPs and members of the DUP, taking the total number of rebels to 97.
The SNP immediately seized on Labour’s refusal to vote against the government, with former first minister Alex Salmond accusing the party’s MPs of “sitting on their hands”.
“Labour have yet again chosen to abstain on a key vote – they need to find a backbone and become an effective opposition in parliament,” he said.
“The UK government has already caved on its proposal to have the EU referendum on the same day as the Scottish and other elections – but now because of Labour, we’ve missed the opportunity to defeat the government on purdah restrictions.”
The result is likely to be seen as something of a hollow victory for Downing Street, as the government only won with the help of the opposition.
During the afternoon, Cameron had personally spearheaded a major operation to reduce the number of Tory rebels.
Downing Street first moved to reach out to Eurosceptics overnight by performing a small U-turn on the date of the referendum. He said it will not be held on the same date as the Scottish and other devolved bodies in May next year.
David Lidington, the Europe minister, then wrote to every Tory MP to say the government was prepared to table amendments to the EU referendum bill in the autumn to offer assurances that the campaign would be conducted in a fair way. Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, even held private meetings in his House of Commons office to win over wavering Tory MPs.
However, the charm offensive failed to convince leading Eurosceptics such as former defence secretary Liam Fox and senior backbencher Bernard Jenkin. Fox told MPs: “I have not once, in 23 years in the House of Commons voted against my party on a whipped vote. I urge [Lidington] to not put those of us in that position tonight to be forced to take an alternative course.”
Jenkin told MPs: “Unless we insist that these provisions for purdah remain in the bill then we are acquiescing in the dilution of a very important principle … What we want in the bill is purdah. If the government is not prepared to accept that principle now on the floor of the house then I fear we have to force it to a vote. It is a matter of principle.”
The government also found itself under fire from pro-Europeans who were alarmed by the way in which ministers want to use the Whitehall machinery in the final days of the campaign.
Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, was not one of the rebels, but earlier told MPs: “I think it is a reflection of the rather strange and cack-handed way in which from time to time government seems to behave when it comes to approaching legislation. They either think that all my [colleagues], who feel very exercised about this, are going to miss this particular deletion or it is an open invitation to discord taking up quite a lot of the time of this house.”
Earlier, Lidington had told MPs that he was prepared to amend the bill at report stage in the autumn as a way of offering assurances that the government could not abuse its position in the final phase of the referendum campaign.
“We will ensure there is a clear mechanism that in those four weeks before polling day government will not undertake a range of activities that most will regard as the province of the campaign such as issuing mailshots, running commercial advertising campaigns and emailing voters in one or another,” he said.
“There are various ways in which this could be done. Some colleagues have talked about a code of conduct … We could, alternatively to a code of conduct, provide for language on the face of the bill to restrict government activity to particular named forms of publication or to prohibit the government from taking part in specific forms of communication.”
But Lidington said the government was still determined to relax the purdah rules amid fears that the government would be severely restricted from conducting its normal business if there were questions about whether ministers could use Whitehall machinery to discuss matters relating to the EU.
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