Don’t rig ref­er­en­dum with cash, PM warned

Daily Mail - - News - By Daniel Martin Chief Po­lit­i­cal Cor­re­spon­dent

DAVID Cameron risks ac­cu­sa­tions of ‘rig­ging’ the EU ref­er­en­dum if he sanc­tions a ‘del­uge’ of tax­payer­funded pro­pa­ganda in the run-up to the vote, for­mer min­is­ters warned yes­ter­day.

Owen Pater­son, the arch-Euroscep­tic for­mer en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary, said the re­sult could be seen as ‘il­le­git­i­mate’ if the Prime Min­is­ter goes ahead with plans to al­low the gov­ern­ment to spend mil­lions on cam­paign­ing right up un­til polling day.

Min­is­ters said yes­ter­day they would push ahead with pro­pos­als to waive the re­stric­tions of ‘pur­dah’, which nor­mally ap­ply dur­ing a gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign.

But there were grow­ing signs of un­ease on the Tory back­benches, with for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral Do­minic Grieve say­ing there were con­cerns the gov­ern­ment would use the rule change to ‘load the dice’ in their favour.

And for­mer Labour min­is­ter Kate Hoey raised con­cerns the BBC, which she said had re­ceived fund­ing from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, would pump out pro-EU pro­pa­ganda dur­ing the cam­paign.

For­eign Sec­re­tary Philip Ham­mond said yes­ter­day that the In/ Out ref­er­en­dum on EU membership could hap­pen as soon as next year if other Euro­pean coun­tries were amenable to change.

The Euro­pean Union Ref­er­en­dum Bill, passed by MPs with 544 in favour and 53 against last night, will lift the re­stric­tion on the Gov­ern­ment pub­lish­ing ma­te­rial on is­sues brought up in the cam­paign for 28 days be­fore the vote.

Mr Ham­mond de­scribed the re­stric­tion as ‘ un­work­able and in­ap­pro­pri­ate’ – but promised min­is­ters would not spend mil­lions in the fi­nal weeks of the cam­paign. ‘If the con­cern is that the Gov­ern- ment are think­ing of spend­ing public money to de­liver doorstep mail­shots in the last four weeks of the cam­paign, I can as­sure him that the Gov­ern­ment have no such in­ten­tion,’ he told one MP. How­ever Mr Pater­son urged Mr Ham­mond to tell Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron to re­verse this po­si­tion, or the re­sult of the ref­er­en­dum may not be seen as valid.

De­bat­ing the Bill at sec­ond read­ing, he said: ‘If the public have a sense ... that this was rigged, the re­sult will not be le­git­i­mate.’

Mr Pater­son is among more than 80 Tory MPs who have ex­pressed in­ter­est in sign­ing up to the new­ly­formed Con­ser­va­tives for Bri­tain group, which says it is ready to cam­paign for a Bri­tish exit against the PM’s views if nec­es­sary.

It is par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal of the move to drop pur­dah and al­low un­lim­ited spend­ing by public bod­ies – in­clud­ing the Gov­ern­ment and Euro­pean Com­mis­sion – on pro­mot­ing a Yes vote through­out the cam­paign. The group had been bol­stered by the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion, which said it was ‘dis­ap­pointed and con­cerned’ by the pro­posal.

Mr Pater­son said if the Gov­ern­ment dropped a ‘del­uge of lo­cal gov­ern­ment, of na­tional gov­ern­ment, and above all Euro­pean gov­ern­ment money and pro­pa­ganda’ on vot­ers it would ‘go down ex­tremely badly’.

He added: ‘There will be re­ports, there will be briefs, there will be analy­ses of the ter­ri­fy­ing con­se­quences of which way one of the votes might go. That will be un­ac­cept­able. That will go down ex­tremely badly with the Bri­tish peo­ple.’

Mr Grieve said: ‘We have to be care­ful to pro­vide a level play­ing field and make it clear that the Gov­ern­ment will not abuse their po­si­tion.’

It un­der­stood the Prime Min­is­ter’s rene­go­ti­a­tion will in­clude the size of the EU bud­get. Miss Hoey said: ‘How do we en­sure that the big­gest fun­der of all – the Euro­pean Union and the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion it­self – is ab­so­lutely clear about what it can and can­not fund? We al­ready know that many of our in­sti­tu­tions in this coun­try, in­clud­ing the BBC, get huge amounts of Euro­pean Union money.

‘It will be ab­so­lutely dis­grace­ful if the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is al­lowed to con­tinue to pour in money which is used for pro­pa­ganda ... in our schools and our ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions gen­er­ally.’

For­mer Scot­tish first min­is­ter Alex Sal­mond warned MPs to ‘lock down’ the terms of the cam­paign in the Bill or risk their ‘worst fears’ com­ing true and the Gov­ern­ment ‘stack­ing the deck’ of the cam­paign.

‘Re­sult will not be le­git­i­mate’

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