CONSERVATIVE tensions over Europe were further exposed as former Cabinet Ministers criticised the handling of the promised European Union referendum.
Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary until last year, claimed voters would be left feeling the referendum had been “rigged” while former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said Ministers were in danger of appearing to “load the dice” in favour of a ‘yes vote’.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond came under fire from his own backbenches as he set out the law which MPs will need to pass in order to hold the referendum by the end of 2017.
Mr Paterson was among MPs angered by the decision to scrap the ‘purdah’ rules that normally limits Government announcements during election time for the referendum.
Eurosceptics have expressed concern the move will allow Government resources to be used to reinforce the ‘yes’ campaign.
Mr Paterson said: “This is an absolutely fundamental issue.
“If the public have a sense, and the British public have a real sense of fairness, if they have a sense that this was rigged, the result will not be legitimate.”
Mr Grieve QC said he anticipated he would be likely to be arguing for a Yes vote, but would wait for the Prime Minister’s renegotiation.
He said: “Nevertheless I think we have to be very careful to ensure that we provide a clear indication that it will be a level playing field and it will not be abused, and for that reason I do hope that the Government will focus on this issue because the change which is being introduced on a piece of legislation which we previously ourselves criticised as being deficient in this respect can convey an impression that the Government will come in and try to load the dice, and that must be avoided.”
Mr Hammond insisted the normal purdah rules would be “unworkable and inappropriate” for a referendum where the Government is recommending an outcome.
He resisted calls to set out the details of the Government’s agenda for the renegotation but told MPs the referendum could be held earlier if the discussions come to a swift conclusion.
Labour seized on the Conservatives’ divisions and the Prime Minister’s U-turn earlier on the week over whether Ministers will be allowed to campaign for a no vote in the referendum,
Shadow Foreign Secretary and Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn said: “The Prime Minister is probably for in, but he can’t say definitely he’s in or out because a lot of his MPs are for out unless they can be persuaded to be in.
“Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary who used to be leaning out now appears to be leaning in, while other members of the Cabinet who are for out read yesterday that they would be out unless they campaigned for in.
“Now it seems they might be in even though after all they are probably for out.
“In, out, in, out, it’s the EU Tory Hokey Cokey - a complete mess.”
He said Labour would be supporting calls for 16 and 17-year-olds to be given a vote.
Alex Salmond, the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman at Westminister, said his party would oppose the Bill.
He described the referendum as a “nonsense” because the Prime Minister is not proposing any significant constitutional change and wants to keep Britain in the EU and is only using it as a “sop” to eurosceptics.