A group of Brexit supporters have contacted Britain’s chief civil servant demanding that pro-EU propaganda be deleted from Government websites in accordance with referendum ‘purdah’ rules.
Tomorrow the British Government enters a period of official ‘purdah’ lasting for four weeks until the European Union (EU) referendum is held on 23 June. In that period the pro-Remain campaign will be banned from using the Government machine to promote initiatives or laws that could sway the outcome of the referendum.
In other words, official reports like the one published by the Treasury earlier this week which predicted economic doomsday scenarios in the event of a Brexit should no longer be produced by the Government. Additionally no current civil servants will be allowed to help Remain ministers with campaign speeches and appearances.
Brexit campaigners have noted that the Government’s pro-Remain booklet, seen by them as “deeply-depressing” pro-EU propaganda, currently has a link to it posted on the official Gov.UK website (here) and are urging ministers and civil servants to remove such links or find themselves “in breach of the law”.
According to the Daily Mail the letter to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, said:
We are in no doubt the intention of the government to maintain all webpages on the Gov.uk website intended to persuade voters to support ”Remain” in the referendum is both a gross violation of the spirit of the PPERA rules for providing for fair referendums and also a breach of the law…
…We therefore demand any government web pages carrying material published with the intention of persuading people to vote remain should be taken down (before Friday). Failure to carry this out will put both ministers and civil servants in breach of the law, of the Ministerial Code and of the Civil Service Code.
Signed by around 30 Members of Parliament (MPs) such as the former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, Labour MP Gisela Stuart, Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith and UKIP peer Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the letter is also copied to Prime Minister David Cameron.
The matter of removing pro-EU propaganda was also brought up by the Tory backbench MP Bernard Jenkin at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions. He suggested the Government is looking to “bludgeon” people into voting in favour of staying in the EU. He asked George Osborne, who was standing in for Mr. Cameron:
“In my right honourable friend’s enthusiasm to bludgeon the British voter into supporting a EU they don’t really like, how can he justify planning to break the law? Is he aware the public administration committee has published three legal opinions from Speaker’s Counsel which make it perfectly clear it is illegal to keep pro-EU referendum up on government websites during purdah period?”
Mr. Osborne dismissed the question, stating: “Of course the Government will comply with the law and Government websites will comply with the purdah rules, and we are confident that they do.”
The fact Mr. Jenkin was willing to accuse his party colleagues of illegality, coupled with Mr. Osborne’s rebuttal, is seen as evidence of acrimonious divisions withing the Conservative Party brought about by the EU referendum.
Standing in for Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s Angela Eagle characterised the argument as a “proxy war” over the leadership of the Conservative Party, leaving the Government “adrift” and held to ransom by rebel backbenchers.