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David Cameron faced a setback on Monday as members of the so-called “awkward squad” teamed up with Labour to defeat the prime minister for the first time this parliament, in what could well be a sign of things to come.
Bill Cash, Peter Bone and Steve Baker were among 37 Tory MPs who rebelled against a motion to abandon “purdah” rules during the upcoming EU referendum in 2016-17, which blocks government from unduly influencing state polls.
As well as preventing Whitehall departments from making major announcements in the 28 days prior to a vote, it also stops governing bodies from publishing promotional material that could swing a campaign one way or another.
EU Referendum will decide the future of the UK. Delighted that measured Commons debate has restored purdah.
— Owen Paterson MP (@Owen_PatersonMP) September 7, 2015
Cameron’s defeat highlights the slenderness of his majority in the Commons, the Conservatives having a mere 7 MPs more than the 323 required to form a majority government once the absence of Sinn Fein and the neutrality of the speaker are taken into account.
It also comes shortly after the government accepted advice from the Electoral Commission that Cameron’s preferred wording of the EU referendum question could unfairly influence the result towards staying within the confederation of European states.
The argument that government business couldn’t carry on without promoting the EU revealed the extent to which we’re ruled by Brussels. — Daniel Hannan (@DanHannanMEP) September 7, 2015
The pair of victories for the eurosceptics within the Conservative party also recalls the trials of the former Tory prime minister John Major, whose exasperation with his own awkward squad led him to label three cabinet ministers “bastards” within hearing of a video camera back in 1993.
Cameron is due to face more pressure from the likes of Cash, Bone and Baker over whether cabinet ministers are allowed to campaign to quit the EU, with luminaries such as London mayor Boris Johnson, justice secretary Michael Gove and foreign secretary Philip Hammond among those reported to be considering it.
Hilary Benn, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, said of the defeat on Monday: “This is a humiliating defeat for David Cameron, with members from all sides of the house supporting Labour’s approach to purdah, which ensures fairness in the conduct of the referendum campaign while permitting normal government business to take place.
“The government should never have rushed through its flawed plans to play fast and loose with the rules on the referendum.”
A full list of the 37 Tories who rebelled can be viewed via the Labour Whips’ Twitter account:
List of 37 Tory rebel MPs on Purdah: Adam Afriyie Richard Bacon Steve Baker Guto Bebb Peter Bone Graham (cont) http://t.co/2zYkQODrF7
— Labour Whips (@labourwhips) September 7, 2015