The Government could try to “rig” the European Union referendum using Whitehall bureaucrats, former SNP leader Alex Salmond claimed today.
The MP for Gordon backed calls from eurosceptic Tories, including former cabinet minister Owen Paterson, for the Government to impose a 28-day purdah period before the crucial in/out referendum.
That would mean Government departments and civil servants would not be able to put out any official statements that could sway voters, a practice which is applied during national and local elections.
David Cameron is opposed to the restrictions, but an amendment to the EU Referendum Bill calling for purdah could see rebel Tory MPs inflict the Government’s first defeat since May’s election.
This afternoon, the pro-European Mr Salmond backed the calls from eurosceptics for purdah, but was undecided as to whether he would back the Tory-amendment.
Speaking on the BBC’s Daily Politics, he said: “Just because you are pro-European as I am to my fingertips, doesn’t mean you believe the Government should be allowed to rig the referendum.
“Why on earth would you abolish the purdah rules unless you have something in mind to try and rig the referendum? Of course it requires more than the rules, it requires the enforcement of the rules because we had an agreement in the Scottish referendum there would be a purdah period which the Government down here drove a coach and horses through.
“The purdah period should be a confined period; usually 28-days. It is that 28-day period – you can’t stop the Government not being the Government for months – but there is a period of the election campaign proper that 28-days... there should be no new Government initiatives. The civil service should be enforced neutrality. That didn’t happen in the Scottish referendum, it should happen in this referendum.”
Veteran Tory MP Sir William Cash has tabled the amendment to the EU Referendum Bill calling for the purdah period to be introduced.
The amendment could attract a large number of supporters through the newly created Conservatives For Britain – a Eurosceptic group which launched last week and is rumoured to have 110 MPs as members.
Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell is backing the amendment, and today told The Huffington Post UK a purdah period was needed to ensure a “free and fair referendum”.
He said: “This is more evidence that these referendum negotiations are a complete fix.
“The whole machinery of government is intended to be used to bully people into voting for Dave’s new deal.”
Turning to the civil service, Mr Carswell said: “We spent 40 years waiting for this moment. If the Whitehall mandarins and Sir Humphreys in Whitehall can’t keep their Europhile views to themselves for a few weeks…is that too much to ask?”
The FDA, which represents more than 18,000 senior civil servants and other professionals, hit back at Mr Carswell’s criticism.
The union’s General Secretary Dave Penman said: “Civil servants have a well-established obligation to serve the Government of the day, as outlined within the Civil Service Code principles of objectivity and impartiality.
“All sides in the referendum campaign need to exercise caution against rhetoric that damages both the impartiality and integrity of the civil service.”
The Prime Minister's spokeswoman said the Government had two reasons for not wanting a period of purdah ahead of the EU referendum, which is due to take place before the end of 2017.
"There is the very technical point about what would the restrictions if we had not sought to lift them have meant in terms of not being able to publish things. So, for example, if in the run-up to referendum there was an emergency European Council, and the Prime Minister wanted to make a statement in the House or do a press conference or for us to publish something on that, what's the position on whether they would be able to do that?
"Secondly, it is the point the Prime Minister has said. He intends to achieve these reforms to renegotiate the UK's relationship and on that basis the govt is not going to be a neutral or a bystander in this debate."
She added that the the committee stage for the Bill, which begins tomorrow, would allow MPs to raise any issues.
She said: "That Committee stage gets underway tomorrow and that will provide the first opportunity to really discuss with other MPs how we address it."
"His view is that MPs have clearly expressed views on this and it's right we use the committee and stages the bill and beyond to look at if there are ways to address this."