The issue of the EU referendum purdah has become distinctly more complex and heated since we raised it last Tuesday following the Prime Minister’s agreement to change the referendum question. On Thursday, the Government published its proposed amendments to the Bill which would partially reintroduce a more narrow, weaker version of purdah – proposals ConservativeHome views as insufficient to guarantee a fair ballot. Speaking to a variety of Conservative MPs, it is clear that many of them are unhappy about the fudge, too.
Today the matter comes to a vote, so a flurry of activity is underway on both sides of the issue. There are three key aspects to watch:
This morning, David Lidington laid out the Government’s case - arguing first that the former definition of purdah would restrict the Government’s ability to carry out normal EU-related business such as circulating papers to other EU governments or to MEPs, second that it could stop Ministers laying out the nature of the referendum and third that it could stop MPs taking part in the campaign.
These arguments are heavily disputed by supporters of proper purdah, not least Business for Britain.
On Lidington’s first argument, they point out that as the Bill only applies to the UK and Gibraltar, and even there to issuing publications to ‘the public at large’, the normal sending of briefings, responses and notes to other EU states, MEPs or the European institutions would be unaffected. Bernard Jenkin, the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee wrote to the Minister in July making exactly this point – and arguing that neither he nor his committee nor the witnesses his committee had spoken to found the Government’s warnings credible.
The idea that the Government wouldn’t be allowed to explain the outcome of their renegotiation comes in for similarly strong criticism. Purdah applies to the last 28 days before a vote – so the Government would in fact be able to publish and explain the results of the renegotiation in full, as long as it does so with more than four weeks to go until the people decide. Unless they are planning to announce the renegotiation and then rush straight to a ballot, what is the problem with having a campaign of at least 29 days?
Finally, the warning that MPs could be forbidden from campaigning is on very shaky ground, too. Yesterday, Paul Waugh reported that a leaked note from the Commons Library which contradicts the Government’s claim:
‘The note makes clear that the current law “does not prevent Members from campaigning in a referendum or incurring and meeting expenses in connection with the referendum as long as those expenses are not met from the public purse.”‘
The point being, of course, that MPs are allowed to campaign for all sorts of things – they just aren’t allowed to use their taxpayer-funded resources on referendums, just as they aren’t allowed to use them on General Elections. That’s quite a simple principle, and there has been no suggestion of issues with it in previous elections or referendum votes.
Ultimately, this is the crux of the argument: purdah has worked fine before, so why does the Government want to abolish it or water it down now? As Business for Britain argues:
‘…it should be noted that the purdah rules were introduced by the Blair Government in 2000 ahead of its planned referendum on joining the euro, and were fully supported by the Conservative Party at the time. When the Conservative Party proposed a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the draft Bill included the normal purdah provisions. The Party leadership is being inconsistent. If the Conservative Party thought the rules were good enough for a referendum on the euro or the Lisbon Treaty, why are they not good enough for a referendum on EU membership?’
There are a number of different groups of people hoping to reinstate purdah today.
Over 100 backbench Conservative MPs have been invited to meet this afternoon to discuss how they will vote. They want purdah reinstated in full, and an amendment to do so has been tabled by Bill Cash and Steve Baker.
Labour, who sat on their hands in the last vote on the issue, now appear to be more minded to intervene. They have tabled their own amendments (to which Jenkin and others have proposed some improving amendments) which also seek to put purdah back into the Bill.
Notably, both Amendment 78 (Cash and Baker’s) and Amendment 4 (Labour’s) have this morning received the backing of the Electoral Commission.
If sufficient numbers of Conservative MPs are joined by a good Labour turnout and a strong showing from the SNP, then it is entirely possible that today’s votes will see true purdah reinstated.
As ever, while the players in the game are important, so are the rules by which they must play. The Government has already behaved somewhat shoddily – only publish the numerous pages of amendments half an hour before the tabling deadline, with no consultation, despite having had the whole summer to draw them up. That’s either lamentable tardiness or distasteful gamesmanship. Either way, it is far from best practice.
As a result, the Speaker is now in a rather difficult position – he must do his duty to the House, which means trying to ensure there is sufficient time to properly debate and vote on all aspects of such an important issue. Some issues simply won’t get the time to be discussed as a result. Indeed, the ordering of the different proposals could well play its own part - it’s easy to imagine Ministers raising fears that if their amendments for a partial purdah are voted down as insufficient and the later amendments fail too then MPs could end up with no purdah at all.
It is encouraging, therefore, that Conservative backbenchers are getting organised in advance – ConservativeHome urges them to support proper, full purdah to protect this crucial referendum. Nothing less will do.