Thursday

1st Dec 2022

Cameron avoids defeat on EU referendum bill

  • 27 Conservative MPs voted against Cameron's EU referendum plan (Photo: UK Parliament)

British PM David Cameron was saved from an embarrassing defeat on his EU referendum plans only by the Labour party’s abstention as his government’s bill moved a step closer to completion.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday (16 June), 27 Conservative MPs voted against the government’s plans to scrap the "purdah" - a traditional practice observed in the last four weeks before national elections in the UK, during which the government is expected to remain neutral, with ministers and the civil service forbidden from issuing political statements.

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However, Labour, which now backs a referendum, but which will launch its own Yes campaign in favour of continued EU membership, chose not to defeat the government.

As a result, an amendment attempting to reinstate the restrictions was defeated by 288 votes to 97.

In a statement following the vote, former Scottish National party leader Alex Salmond urged Labour to “find a backbone and become an effective opposition in parliament”.

At the heart of the row are fears among some Conservative MPs that the government is seeking to give the Yes camp an advantage by issuing communications supporting EU membership in the lead-up to the referendum.

During the debate, Conservative rebels said the rules on funding in the bill could allow the Yes campaign to outspend its rival by £17 million to £8 million.

The rules allow political parties to spend money based on the percentage of the vote won at last month’s general election.

Earlier, Cameron’s Europe minister, David Lidington, sent a letter to the party’s 331 MPs assuring them that the government would table amendments to the bill that would “put beyond any doubt that the campaign will be conducted throughout in a manner that all sides will see as fair”.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Lidington told MPs that the government would “ensure there is a clear mechanism in the four weeks before polling day, government will not undertake a range of activity that most will regard as the province of the campaigns, such as issuing mail-shots, running commercial advertising campaigns or e-mailing voters in one way or another.”

Cameron is anxious to avoid a repeat of the drama of the Maastricht treaty in 1992 and 1993, when the Conservative government of John Major suffered a series of defeats that left the party bitterly divided. Like Major, Cameron has a narrow majority in parliament.

Having last week backed down on threats that ministers wishing to campaign for a No vote would have to resign, on Monday he ruled out plans to hold the referendum on the same day as Welsh and Scottish parliament elections next May.

Cameron is believed to favour an early poll, in a bid to avoid the referendum coinciding with elections in France and Germany in 2017.

At the same time, he has repeatedly said that the government will not remain neutral on the question of EU membership if he is successful in renegotiating the UK’s membership terms with the bloc.

Debate on the bill will resume in the autumn.

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