EU referendum: The purdah wars

As EU referendum fever (or exasperation, given we’ve four more months of it) sets in and campaign groups of every persuasion increase the heat, another type of ‘conflict’ has raged in the background: purdah rules and the role of the civil service.

For those needing a reminder of parliamentary conventions, Purdah (a Persian word for ‘veil’) refers to restrictions of how governments and the civil service behave during the pre-election period in the UK. For referendums the period in question covers the 28 days ending with the date of the poll (Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000). During that period there are serious limitations on the type of material central and local government can publish, as well as “any other person or body whose expenses are defrayed wholly or mainly out of public funds or by any local authority”. The purdah period for the EU referendum will begin on 27th May.

This week Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood informed ministers campaigning to leave the EU that they will be banned from accessing official documents and prevented from receiving briefings or getting help with ideas for speeches. Departmental officials will only be able to provide a fact checking service. In a letter distributed to Whitehall, Sir Jeremy noted that it would not be appropriate or permissible for the Civil Service to continue to support those who oppose the Government’s official position. He added that “This includes access to official departmental papers, excepting papers that ministers have previously seen on issues relating to the referendum question prior to the suspension of the collective agreement.”

Sir Jeremy’s announcement is the latest in a series of disagreements over purdah rules, starting back in the summer / autumn of 2015. At the time, the Government had argued that applying strict purdah rules during the EU referendum campaign would make government dealings with the EU “unworkable”, as there were concerns over the possibility of serious litigation, even in cases where a minister simply makes an official statement on the EU.

The Out camp had insisted that anything less than ”full purdah” would render the referendum results “rigged” and “invalid”. Eventually and in what was viewed as the first defeat of this government, Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, boosted by Labour MPs, defeated proposals for a more relaxed purdah by 312 votes to 285 in September. The final European Union Referendum Act 2015 did include provisions allowing Ministers to put in place regulations modifying certain aspects of what documents can be published, but stipulated that any such regulations had to be in place four months before the referendum. This was an attempt to ensure that the ground rules of the referendum had been set well in advance.

Although the Government seems to have capitulated to the demands of the Eurosceptic side throughout the whole Brexit debate, this is perhaps a gamble worth taking. It would mean that, in the event of a vote in favour of remaining in the EU, the Eurosceptic side will be in no position to argue that the Government abused its power and resources to advance a pro-EU agenda. The rules of the game were set according to their wishes and any result, positive or negative, will most likely put the EU membership issue to rest for a long time.