Why the EU referendum campaign needs to be SEEN to be fair. Not just fair.

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January 12, 2016 by Paul Goldsmith

David Cameron’s behaviour over the EU Referendum could lead to him leaving behind the UK still in Europe but his political party irrevocably divided.

This is the year when the divisions within our two main political parties become of far more significance than the divisions between them. There is little that Jeremy Corbyn can do about divisions within the Labour Parliamentary party given he had to borrow nominations off others’ supporters even to get on the ballot paper for the leadership election and has no intention of changing his views and policies to bring moderates into his tent. David Cameron, though, does still have choices he can make to keep the Conservative Parliamentary Party together during the EU referendum campaign. He seems to not be making them at the moment.

It is important to accept that if the UK public choose to remain in the EU, and we are not going to have the losing campaign pushing for a re-run, the referendum needs to not just be run fairly, but to be SEEN to be run fairly. Indications are that, in his determination to ‘win’, David Cameron may not quite be capable of allowing that to happen.

You might think that last week’s announcement that the Cabinet and Ministers will be allowed to campaign for the UK to leave the EU once the negotiations are over suggests that Cameron IS willing to show fairness. The truth is that he had little choice. To muzzle Ministers with deeply held Eurosceptic views would have led to damaging resignations and accusations from the Leave campaign that this muzzling was the only reason Remain won. Instead, Cameron is finding other ways to gently remove the effectiveness of any Eurosceptic Ministers.

For example, the Referendum will be held after Cameron has finished his renegotiations with EU leaders. Whilst that is going on, he has asked his ministerial colleagues in a letter published yesterday not to speak out in favour of leaving the EU. Cameron argues that this is because negative comments could compromise his negotiation, as EU leaders will point to his senior colleagues promoting leaving and say there is no point them conceding changes to the UK if they are going to leave. However, there seems to be no similar muzzling of pro-EU Ministers, who have been happily burbling away to whoever wants to listen about the benefits of remaining and disasters of leaving the EU.

Furthermore, he has made clear that should the Government’s position be that the renegotiation was successful and the UK should remain in the EU (and it will be a cold day in hell before Cameron does anything else), the civil service must support the government’s position and so cannot provide any help to Eurosceptic ministers, and special advisers to those ministers will only be able to operate on referendum business in their own time. The letter also suggests that Ministers will not be able to talk in Parliament in favour of leaving the EU from the front benches but will need to do so from the back benches.

I get it. David Cameron didn’t really want this referendum. He was bounced into it by fears of the electoral rise of UKIP and it did give him a short term political lift as the Conservatives could point to their referendum commitment and remind potential UKIP voters that them being in power was the only way to get the EU referendum. BUT, now he has the referendum, Cameron wants to win it. Hence the ludicrously ‘thin gruel’ of his negotiation conditions. Hence the inconsistent muzzling of Ministers. Hence dressing up the rules for civil servants and special advisers as consistent with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 – where behaviour is heavily regulated for the last 28 days of the campaign – even though Cameron had once claimed that the ‘Purdah’ rules on Government not issuing communication in support of either side of the referendum shouldn’t hold in this case as we are so much part of the EU.

It’s a general drip drip of restrictions that are far too easy to see through. If the Government were confident they were going to win this referendum and stay in the EU, they would be happily giving the Leave campaign as fair and equal a chance to make their case as they could so that it DID appear to be fair and equal. But they are not confident, so they are not doing so.

This is why, even if the UK remains in the EU, David Cameron, and his eventual replacement will be trying to lead a party that is bitter and divided. It didn’t need to be this way. It still doesn’t.

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