DAVID Cameron has been warned by a former Cabinet colleague that lifting the normal purdah restrictions on government activity ahead of the EU referendum could lead voters to regard the result as "rigged" and "illegitimate".


The warning from right-wing Eurosceptic Owen Paterson, the former Environment Secretary, came as MPs debated the EU Referendum Bill when Alex Salmond urged MPs to lock down the terms of the campaign in legislation or risk the Tory Government "stacking the deck".

The former First Minister drew an analogy with last year's Scottish independence campaign when he, unsuccessfully, led the drive towards a Yes vote.

The SNP's foreign affairs spokesman said fears over the lifting of purdah came not only from those opposed to the EU but also from "members of great experience who are concerned that the Government is already moving to stack the deck in this referendum campaign".

He said if the opinion polls began to narrow, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the Treasury mandarin who controversially intervened in the independence referendum to bolster the UK Government's argument, would make a fresh appearance.

"We'll find civil servants compromising their impartiality, we'll find the Prime Minister suddenly making a promise, a commitment, a pledge - a vow - that he's suddenly found some new policy initiative to turn the argument in total defiance of any idea of a purdah period.

"My advice, and it's free advice, freely given, honestly given, is...lock it into the amendments of the Bill, if you want to secure a proper and decent referendum and avoid the deck being stacked."

Mr Paterson said purdah was "an absolutely fundamental issue" and told MPs: "If the public have a sense - and the British public have a real sense of fairness - that this was rigged, the result will not be legitimate."

Tory backbencher Peter Bone also stressed that what many people were concerned about was that the "Government will use the apparatus of state to push a case rather than letting the two sides have equal and fair access"

But Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, making clear a referendum could be held earlier than 2017 if the desired reform agreement were reached with Britain's 27 EU partners in good time, defended the decision to lift the normal purdah restrictions before polls, saying there were "operational and political reasons" for doing so.

He explained that if purdah rules were applied, it would prevent the Government from publishing material which dealt with any issue raised by the referendum question and that would be "unworkable and inappropriate".

He stressed the Government had no intention of undermining the Yes and No campaigns, was "not proposing to spend large sums of public money during the purdah period" and would exercise restraint to ensure a "balanced debate".

The Secretary of State also defended the Government's decision on who should vote, saying it would be "wrong" to include 16 and 17-year-olds as an addition to the Westminster franchise of 18 and it would be a "travesty" to seek to include EU nationals "whose interests may be very different from those of British people".

But Mr Salmond argued the SNP opposed the Government Bill because it failed to meet "the gold standard" of the independence referendum in terms of inclusivity and participation by not allowing 16 and 17-year-olds and EU nationals to take part.

During Commons exchanges, veteran Tory Eurosceptic John Redwood argued the EU was holding Britain back and was "something from the last century".

But his Tory colleague Ken Clarke, the Europhile former Chancellor, said the idea of withdrawing from the largest trading bloc in the world to further Britain's prosperity was "an absurdity".

Meantime, Labour's Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, mocked the Conservative leadership's position on Ministerial collective responsibility after David Cameron claimed he had been "misinterpreted" over not allowing Ministers to campaign against the Government line only later to leave the door open to such an option.

"In, out, in, out, it's the EU Tory hokey-cokey; a complete mess," declared Mr Benn.