Don’t rig referendum with cash, PM warned
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’