What is purdah and why is the Conservative party infighting over the Persian word for curtain?

Eurosceptic MPs are not happy with the government's plans to scrap the normal restrictions on government activity in the run up to the EU referendum

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Infighting has broken out in the Conservative party over the Persian word for curtain: purdah.

What is purdah?

The term is used to describe the period between the time the election is announced and the date the election is held and imposes a ban on promotional material produced by central and local government that could affect how people vote.

Under purdah rules, Whitehall departments and civil servants are banned from using official government resources to make the case for any side in an election

David Cameron faces the prospect of a major rebellion from his backbench MPs over his plan to suspend purdah for the EU referendum

Civil servants are restricted only to produce the bare facts and procedural information during the purdah period, meaning press offices are not allowed to distribute information that might be deemed as biased.

Why does the government want to relax purdah rules for the EU referendum?

David Cameron wants to lift the restrictive purdah rules during the EU referendum campaign for several reasons.

Firstly, he is worried that imposing the usual limits on during the campaign would impair the government’s other responsibilities. The EU referendum may be crucial but it still has to run the country and there are plenty of other important issues the government has to deal with during the campaign. It’s not like an election – we will have the same Conservative government regardless of the result in the referendum.

Secondly, the Prime Minister has made it clear the government will not be neutral during the referendum. He is aiming to secure a successful renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU, which he then hopes British voters will vote in favour of when he puts it to a national vote before the end of 2017.

The 'in' and 'out' campaigns will look to learn lessons from last year's referendum on Scottish independence

He does not want to be restricted in his ability to persuade voters to back his renegotiated settlement.

Thirdly, the Westminster and Edinburgh governments came very close to breaching purdah rules. Like in the EU referendum, neither were neutral, which led to civil servants producing clearly biased documents – on orders from their ministers – in efforts to persuade voters of their respective arguments.

By scrapping purdah for the EU referendum it would free central and local government of the danger of breaking the restrictive purdah rules.

Why are Tory MPs rebelling over plans to suspend purdah?

Eurosceptic MPs fear that lifting the normal restrictions on the government’s ability to influence the EU referendum result in the run up to the vote would lead to the powerful Whitehall machinery churning out pro-EU material and would impose no limits on local government distributing similar literature to voters.

Tory eurosceptic Bernard Jernkin says voters will not trust referendum result if the government is able to pump out promotional material

Bernard Jenkin, a leading Tory Eurosceptic MP, said lifting purdah would mean the government could use its “entire publicity machine to brief the media, to skew the battlefield”, while Owen Paterson, a former Cabinet minister, warned that voters would feel the referendum was being “rigged” if normal pre-election restrictions were lifted. 

Meanwhile the influential anti-EU Business for Britain pressure group has complained that purdah was essential to ensure the government does not “unduly influence” the outcome of the referendum by “stacking the deck” in favour of a Yes vote.

“Ministers have clearly been poorly advised on the need for purdah rules and should think again before they damage the credibility of the whole process,” said Robert Oxley, campaign director of the group.

Owen Paterson claimed that even members of the Cabinet were quietly backing the Tory revolt over the terms of the EU referendum

Eurosceptics fear that the lifting of normal purdah rules will lead to the government and the European Commission spending millions of taxpayers’ money on pro-EU propoganda.

While spending limits would apply to the official Yes and No campaigns, there would be no such limits on spending by central, local and European governments, under the plans to suspend the same restrictions that were in place for the Scottish independence and AV referendums to prevent the government interfering during the campaign.