Cameron tries to change the rules to his advantage for EU referendum – defeated

The new government has suffered its first defeat in the House of Commons, over changes to rules governing the in/out EU referendum campaign.

Ministers wanted to amend so-called “purdah” rules which limit government activity during the campaign period.
But Labour teamed up with rebel Tory MPs to block the move by 312 to 285 and ensure the normal rules would apply.

…Purdah is a long standing convention whereby governments refrain from making any major announcements in the run-up to general elections or other polls to avoid influencing their outcome.

The existing rules were set out in legislation passed in 2000. They prevent ministers, departments and local authorities from publishing any “promotional material” arguing for or against any particular outcome or referring to any of the issues involved in the referendum.

…Arguing for a partial suspension of the normal purdah rules, Europe Minister David Lidington told MPs it would ensure the normal running of government business during the final weeks of the referendum campaign.

“Limited modifications” to the purdah rules would enable the government to transcribe wider EU business “without legal risks”, he said.

‘Humiliating defeat’

But he was accused by Tory Eurosceptic MP Sir Edward Leigh of offering “legalistic claptrap” in a bid to avoid a defeat in the Commons.

He said the process must be “considered to be fair” and argued for Labour’s amendment – to reinstate the full purdah rules – to be accepted.

Commenting after the vote, shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn said the government had tried to play “fast and loose” with the arrangements for the referendum.

“This is a humiliating defeat for David Cameron, with members from all sides of the House supporting Labour’s approach to purdah, which ensures fairness in the conduct of the referendum campaign while permitting normal government business to take place,” Mr Benn said.

“The government should never have rushed through its flawed plans to play fast and loose with the rules on the referendum.” …