Richard North, 26/02/2016  

Given far less prominence that it deserved was the question addressed by Owen Paterson to David Cameron in this week's PMQs – especially as it is so revealing of the Prime Minister's mindset.

Paterson was responding to the outrageous instructions given to the Civil Service by Jeremey Heywood, Secretary of the Cabinet & Head of the Civil Service. Specifically, we see him responding to the Prime Minister's letter, limiting assistance to ministers supporting the "leave" proposition.

Thus writes Heywood, "it will not be appropriate or permissible for the Civil Service to support Ministers who oppose the Government's official position by providing briefing or speech material on this matter". This, he adds, "includes access to official departmental papers…".

The important thing here is that this puts the Government in direct contravention of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, known otherwise by its full title, the European Commission for Democracy through Law.

This is the body which sets the terms for the conduct of elections and referendums held by its 47 member states and, with the agreement of its members – of which the UK is one – has produced a Code of Good Practice on Referendums.

Of relevance is Article 2.2 on "Equality of opportunity", which states that equality of opportunity must be guaranteed for the supporters and opponents of the proposal being voted on. This entails, it says, "a neutral attitude by administrative authorities".

Under Art 2.2 (d) we then see more detail, where the Commission declares that "equality must be ensured in terms of public subsidies and other forms of backing". It is advisable, it says, that equality be ensured between the proposal's supporters and opponents.

By any construction, the Heywood letter drives a coach and horse through this provision, a situation which had Owen Paterson ask the Prime Minister whether he had checked whether that letter was compatible with the Commission guidelines on neutrality.

Typically, though, Mr Cameron did not answer the question. Instead he declared that he was "very happy with the letter that was sent out". The Government had a position on this issue: that we would be better off in a reformed European Union.

Ministers, he said, were able to depart from that position, and campaign in a personal capacity, but the Government was not neutral - and neither was the civil service. Thus, we had a situation where the Government had a policy, which it intended to promote, and if people – i.e., ministers – departed from it, they did it as private individuals.

From this, there arises a vitally important issue. This is a referendum in which the people are to decide what the Government's policy should be on membership of the EU. In a democracy, therefore, the Government should not have a policy. It should stand aside and let the people decide what that policy should be.

However, having not answered the question, Mr Cameron went on to talk about the funding of the referendum campaign – which was not at issue. "We now have very clear laws and rules in place - and the Electoral Commission - to make sure that both campaigns are funded properly", he said, "and I think that that is good for our democracy".

So, this is a man who appears to be keen on "democracy". Yet, this very "European" Government seems content to ignore that European Commission for Democracy through Law, when it makes recommendations which it believes are essential to support the democratic process.

In running roughshod over these provisions, therefore, Mr Cameron is showing himself intent on winning at any price – even at the price of skewing the democratic process. With this and other moves, he has eroded the legitimacy of the contest.

This is not a fair fight, and it we do lose it will amount to a stolen referendum. It will not resolve anything.

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