Ministers are trying to strike a last-minute deal with dozens of Conservative MPs who are threatening to rebel this week against their party’s attempts to keep government running in the lead-up to the EU referendum.
Senior Whitehall officials said on Sunday they were trying to find an agreement with backbenchers who want the government to impose the 28-day period of purdah that usually applies before an election, meaning key issues are not debated.
Ministers want to drop the self-imposed ban, saying they may need to make statements on issues such as EU budgets and trade negotiations. But eurosceptic MPs worry that they will use the machinery of government to make the case for Britain’s continued membership of the union.
“We are trying to find a way to accommodate their concerns,” a government official told the Financial Times on Sunday.
David Lidington, the minister for Europe, told MPs last week: “We will need to consider how we put in place the right framework so that [the issue of purdah] will be given proper effect.”
The rebels are increasingly well organised, largely through a eurosceptic grouping called Conservatives for Britain, which launched last week with 50 MPs and now claims to number 110.
Steve Baker, chairman of the group, told the FT he did not want to rebel but many of his members would be prepared to do so on Thursday if ministers did not back down.
Dozens are preparing to back an amendment to the bill brought by Bill Cash, the veteran Tory MP, who wants to reinstate the period of silence. Such a vote is unlikely to defeat the government as Labour has decided to bring forward its own amendment to the bill and not back Mr Cash’s.
But it would be embarrassing for David Cameron, who is already trying to prevent splits in his party just weeks after his majority election victory.
The prime minister has already had to back down once over the issue of Europe since the election, retreating last week from suggestions that he would not allow ministers to campaign for an Out vote while remaining in the government. He said he had been “misinterpreted” by the media, but many Tory MPs believe he bowed to the pressure that had been put on him.
Owen Paterson, one of Mr Cameron’s former cabinet ministers and now a senior member of Conservatives for Britain, warned the referendum result would be seen as illegitimate if purdah was not imposed.
The former environment secretary told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “It really worries me if this is seen to be rigged, if the British people don’t sense it’s fair, whatever the result it won’t be seen to be legitimate and this whole issue will fester further.
“What we need to do, we need to go back very clearly to the current rules on purdah,” he said.
Ministers worry that a similar situation after Scotland’s independence referendum could arise, where Yes campaigners have united to put the issue of a second referendum on the political agenda.
Mr Paterson said “there will be support” from cabinet members for his group, although he declined to name anyone involved in the alliance.
Separately, Chuka Umunna, Labour’s shadow business secretary, launched a pro-EU campaign group to make an “emotional argument” for staying in the union.
But his unilateral action has annoyed some in the party, who think he is running an unofficial campaign to become shadow foreign secretary once a new leader is elected. “I don’t know what he is up to,” said one Labour official. “I don’t see what use there is giving the impression that we’re not all united behind supporting the referendum and supporting staying in the EU.”