David Cameron has been accused by his own MPs of trying to load the rules of the European Union referendum to produce a vote in favour of staying in.
They protested over moves to allow the Government machine to take part in the campaign and to lift spending limits by the rival camps – a decision which critics say will benefit supporters of a Yes vote.
The strength of Eurosceptic sentiment on the Conservative backbenches was underlined in fiery Commons exchanges over the Bill paving the way for a referendum.
At least 50 backbenchers have signed up to a group which is ready to campaign to leave the EU in the referendum, which Mr Cameron has said will take place by the end of 2017.
Owen Paterson, the former Environment Secretary, denounced the decision to waive the practice of “purdah” – which forbids the civil service from issuing political statements for 28 days ahead of elections – during the referendum campaign.
The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, told MPs that the restriction would be “unworkable and inappropriate”. But Mr Paterson called for a rethink, warning that the move would result in taxpayers’ money being spent on a “deluge of propaganda” and raise doubts over the validity of the result.
“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,” he said.
Cheryl Gilllan, the former Welsh Secretary, said: “We need to pass the Bill so that people know that the process will be fair and not loaded in favour of our remaining in an institution that has seemed to load so many processes in its own favour over recent years.”
Peter Bone, the MP for Wellingborough, added that many people were worried that the Government would use the “apparatus of state to push a case, rather than letting the two sides have equal and fair access”.
The former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who is a Europhile, also warned: “We have to be very careful to ensure we provide a clear indication that it will be a level playing field and it will not be abused.”
He said it was essential for the Government to avoid conveying the impression it was trying to “load the dice”.
Opening the debate, Mr Hammond signalled that the referendum could take place early if Mr Cameron completes negotiations with other EU leaders on a new deal for Britain ahead of schedule.
He said: “[The Bill] sets in stone our commitment to hold the referendum before the end of 2017. Of course, if the process is completed sooner, the referendum could be held sooner.”
Earlier, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, intensified the pressure on the Prime Minister by calling for him to allow his ministers to campaign for a British exit.
The intervention by Mr Johnson, who was elected last month as the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, came after Mr Cameron refused to be drawn on the issue.
Asked if ministers should be allowed to campaign for “Brexit” and keep their posts, Mr Johnson told LBC: “I don’t see why not myself.”
He added: “I think, probably, it would be safer and more harmonious just to say ‘OK, you make your minds up’. I think, on something like this, do you really need to bind everybody in?”
Downing Street said Mr Cameron “reiterated his position on the approach to renegotiation and the referendum” at this week's Cabinet meeting.
The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman said: “The position is very clear. All the Government are behind engaging with our European partners to renegotiate the UK’s relationship.
“The decision on the approach during the referendum is for further down the road.”Reuse content