David Cameron Moves To Placate Eurosceptics Over EU Referendum Bill

Bill Cash speaks during the Alternatives to EU Membership conference held at Europe House, London.
Bill Cash speaks during the Alternatives to EU Membership conference held at Europe House, London.
Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

David Cameron has launched a fresh move to defuse a Tory rebellion over Europe with new rules to restrict taxpayer-funded spending on an EU referendum campaign.

In a bid to reassure anxious backbenchers that Whitehall will not try to unfairly promote an 'In' vote in the In-Out poll, the Government has unveiled fresh curbs on what can and can't be done in the campaign.

The move will reinstate a so-called 'purdah' period of 28 days, banning public money being spent during the final four weeks of the referendum.

There are also exemptions to allow ministers to continue their daily duties, for example in dealing with Brussels during the final run-in for the campaign.

But some Tory MPs may not be happy with the way ministers are attempting to change the rules of 'purdah', narrowing its scope to ban activities or leaflets that “directly address” the question of quitting or staying in the EU rather than “any question raised” by the referendum.

And a Labour source said it was 'possible' the party could vote against the narrower definition, as it would allow taxpayer spending on issues like immigration and fisheries - neither of which are 'directly' addressed in the In-Out question.

A string of amendments, tabled by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and seen by The Huff Post UK ahead of their publication on Friday, are a second partial climbdown in two days by ministers worried about being seen to 'bias' the referendum.

One Eurosceptic source told The Huffington Post UK that the amendments were 'full of holes' but it remains to be seen if there will still be a sizeable rebellion - or if Labour will join the rebels.

Today's 11th hour move - the Foreign Office submitted its amendments just minutes before a deadline - is part of a bid to reassure Tory backbenchers who threaten to overturn the Prime Minister's narrow Commons majority.

MPs will get a chance to vote on the bill's third reading on Monday September 7, when Parliament returns from its summer recess amid fears Labour and Tory rebels could unite to wipe out Cameron's slender 12-vote majority in a 'Maastricht-style' alliance.

Government Whips are hoping the changes will defuse the biggest headache facing the PM on the Commons' first day back.

Mr Cameron infuriated some in his party earlier this year when he unveiled moves to suspend 'purdah' that normally prevents ministers, government departments and local authorities from publishing material relating to a referendum.

Many Conservatives - and the Commons Public Administration Select Committee - worried that the 'machinery of government' would be used to promote the 'In' campaign.

Some 27 Tory MPs rebelled against the Government in June and Downing Street and the Foreign Office only avoided defeat because Labour abstained.

Labour this summer tabled a new clause calling for the reinstatement of purdah rules and requiring Parliamentary approval for any exemptions for ministers. Today's amendment on exemptions looks to have adopted Labour's version in full.

Europe minister David Lidington said: “We are absolutely determined to make sure that the referendum is seen by both sides as fair.

"Today’s amendments deliver on the commitment I made in June to take into account concerns about activity in the final four weeks before the referendum while ensuring that we can continue to fight Britain’s corner in Brussels on ongoing EU business and make it possible for Ministers, subject to parliamentary approval, to communicate a position on the referendum in restrained and moderate terms.”

Before the Government's final publication, Harriet Harman told Sky News: "I want people to vote to stay in Europe but I think that people should have a free choice and not have the Government using public money to issue leaflets, to use the Civil service to try and persuade people to vote in the way that the government wants. I think that’s unfair."

Earliler, Sir Bill Cash, the veteran Tory MP and chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, welcomed the suggestion the purdah rules would be in force for the EU referendum but said he would wait to see the exact details of the amendments.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The real issue here is one of fairness and that's the case that we've made and also this is yes versus no. It's not a party political issue as between the political parties.

"We know there are many people in the Labour party and the SNP who very much agree with us."

Sir Bill said there were "quite a lot of people in the House of Commons" who were "absolutely clear that it is not in the national interest to use the machinery of government for the purposes of what could turn out to be support for the yes vote".

UKIP head of policy Mark Reckless said he welcomed new 'purdah' clarity. "We would also call for the Government to make it clear to the European Union institutions that they too should refrain from announcing new policy objectives and spending promises in the UK during the period of the campaign and also honour British purdah rules."

Mr Cameron yesterday retreated on the issue of the question to be used in the EU referendum, switching from a 'Yes/No' choice to 'Remain/Leave'.

A further climbdown on 'purdah' would be seen as a victory by Eurosceptics and proof of the PM's desire to keep his party united ahead of the referendum.

But some backbenchers want to see further changes, including a six-month gap between the end of a renegotiated position and the poll itself.

Some Tories have pointed out that while No.10 yesterday said it agreed with the Electoral Commission on the type of question for the referendum, it had failed so far to follow the independent watchdog's advice on purdah.

This summer, the Commission said it was "supportive of proposals to reinstate restrictions on the publication of promotional material by central and local government in the run up to the poll".

BBC's Newsnight reported last night that some close to Mr Cameron were eyeing a poll in the spring of 2016 rather than 2017.