EU referendum – What David Cameron can learn from the West Wing

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June 16, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

In the ‘West Wing’ there is a scene in which the White House Communications Director CJ Cregg describes how the President should be investigated for having allegedly hidden his multiple sclerosis from the electorate. She wanted to make sure that when the investigation had ended no one could accuse them of a cover up or a whitewash, so that it would end there. “We need to find someone who wants kill us just to watch us die”, she said. David Cameron faces an EU referendum in the next two years that needs to end the issue for a generation at least. To do that, he needs to make sure the referendum is conducted in a way that is equivalent to CJ Cregg’s idea of an investigation. No cheating, no manipulation, just an answer from the electorate that the losing side accepts is the final answer for now. Things do not bode well at the moment.

Today the EU referendum Bill is debated in a second reading and David Cameron faces a significant rebellion. Not just from his Eurosceptic MPs, but also even from Alex Salmond and the SNP and some pro-Europe Labour MPs, who have spotted the obvious, which is that under current conditions for the referendum as the Government have proposed it, the result will not be accepted by the “OUT” campaign should they lose.

Last week the Government suggested that they would put the EU referendum poll on May 5th next year, which is when the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh Assembly elections, local council elections and the London Mayoral elections. On the face of it, this seems sensible, as it cuts the cost of the referendum, but it also means that the arguments for and against leaving the EU will be drowned out by other ‘noise’ caused by the other elections. When you are leading a case for such a significant change as Britain leaving the EU, you need to have as clear a run as possible at clearly communicating your case, and so sharing the polling day with so many other decisions would take away from that, meaning the “IN” case would have more chance to win. That would have then given the “OUT” campaign a chance to continue to campaign, as they could have argued the result was manipulated by the date of the referendum. Thankfully, it looks as if the Government has given in on that one.

Then there is the relaxation of ‘Purdah’. The idea, under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) from 2000 is that in the last 28 days of a referendum campaign, the Government and Civil service are not supposed to campaign on either side of the referendum. That means releasing data and information nor advertising in support of a side. Cameron’s original Bill was arguing for a relaxation of ‘Purdah’ on the basis that it would allow him to campaign for instance. but the Electoral Commission (whom PPERA put in charge of overseeing the referendum) have pointed out that this would “undermine the principles of having spending limits” and warned that “there is a risk that the use of significant amounts of public money for promotional activity could give an unfair advantage to one side of the argument.” Again, if Cameron allows this to go ahead, the “OUT” campaign will not accept their defeat as it is tainted.

Last week there was a ridiculous bit of back-tracking by the Prime Minister on whether his Ministers would be allowed to speak and campaign freely during the referendum campaign. Having said one day that they would not be allowed to remain Ministers if they campaigned for Britain to leave the EU, he backtracked the next day by saying that he expected Ministers only to support his attempt to renogotiated powers with the EU and that once that was done they could campaign as they wanted. This left journalists extremely angry as they had written stories that morning about Ministers not being allowed to campaign against the EU only to be told they had “misinterpreted” the Prime Minister, which those at his original press conference denied. Once more, if Cameron doesn’t allow all MPs a free vote, and if he doesn’t allow Ministers to campaign as they see fit, he will be allowing the “OUT” campaign to argue it was not a fair campaign as some of their most vocal and erudite supporters will be silenced.

The fact is that if David Cameron thought he could win this referendum fair and square, he is clever enough to know the rules and principles of referendums and wouldn’t be suggesting the changes he is. On the other hand, it may be so that members of the “OUT” campaign will not accept the result whatever happens. I just think that whatever the result, it needs to be achieved fairly, even in the eyes of its most implacable opponents.

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