David Cameron has suffered a humiliating defeat over the EU referendum as Tory rebels and Labour put aside their differences to oppose changes to the rules that restrict government campaigning before an election.
The government lost by 27 votes as a group of Tory backbenchers argued that Downing Street was trying to unduly influence the result in favour of staying in the EU.
The rebels, led by Eurosceptics including Bernard Jenkin, Bill Cash and Steve Baker, said it was wrong of the government to seek changes to purdah, which is the month-long period before a poll when government announcements and spending are restricted.
It is Cameron’s first defeat in parliament since winning a slim majority of 12 in May. There were 37 Conservatives who voted against their own party, indicating a large degree of unhappiness among Eurosceptics about the government’s handling of the process.
The willingness of Labour to cooperate with Tory Eurosceptics also raises the prospect of rebellions in the future, with more battles expected over the plans for an EU referendum before the end of 2017.
The row initially broke out in June when it became clear the government wanted to suspend the rules of purdah entirely.
Following an outcry among Eurosceptics, Downing Street hoped to win over Tory rebels by watering down its original proposals.
Before Monday night’s debate, ministers tabled changes offering to reinstate purdah but to allow ministers and officials to talk about the EU as long as this was not directly related to the referendum question or anything that could be construed as campaigning in order to influence the result.
The government also confirmed that Cameron would not call a snap referendum, but give each side at least four months to campaign after the date is announced.
However, MPs voted 312 to 285 against the government’s compromise, with rebels arguing that Downing Street was still trying to find a way of allowing ministers and officials to influence the result of the election with pro-EU propaganda.
A Labour amendment reinstating the usual purdah rules for the 28 days before the poll was then nodded through.
The vote is an ominous sign for the prime minister that the opposition is prepared to exploit Tory divisions over the issue of Europe by cooperating with Cameron’s Eurosceptic backbenchers, raising memories of the rebellions that John Major faced over Maastricht.
David Lidington, the Europe minister, said he had received legal advice that some exemptions to purdah were necessary.
He said: “One of the aspects of the debate about which we have concern is how the government, which will have called the referendum and will have made a recommendation to the British people, should be able to express that view and answer questions in the final four weeks. But the debate about purdah refers specifically to the final 28 days of the campaign.
“Given [that] the EU referendum debate is, I think we would all accept, going to involve a number of people on both sides of the argument with very deep personal pockets and very passionate views on the subject, I think the risk of legal challenges during that campaign is real.
“What the government is seeking to do through these amendments is to manage that legal risk.”
Edward Leigh, a Eurosceptic backbencher, said Lidington was spouting “legalistic claptrap”.
“What is important is the process is considered to be fair. Why can’t we cut to the chase and accept the [opposition] amendment and do what we do in general elections?” he said.
Hilary Benn, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, said the successful
Labour amendment would “ensure fairness in the conduct of the
referendum campaign while permitting normal government business to take place. The government should never have rushed through its flawed plans to play fast and loose with the rules on the referendum,” he said.
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