Tories say Cameron is trying to rig EU referendum vote
New legislation would allow ministers to use taxpayers’ money for campaign
Foreign secretary Philip Hammond during an EU referendum debate: 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. Photograph: PA
MPs from both the pro-EU and Eurosceptic camps criticised ministers during a House of Commons debate on the new EU referendum Bill yesterday, 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 Bill was passed last night, with 544 votes in favour to 53 against.
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.
Dominic Grieve, the Tory former attorney general, who will probably vote to stay in the EU, expressed concern 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 . . . 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. “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.”
Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey 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.
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, 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. He said it would be “unworkable and inappropriate” to stop the government publishing material that dealt with any issue raised by the referendum question.
Mr Hammond was supported by Labour, which is likely to campaign on the same side as Mr Cameron. – (Guardian service)