Sunday 19 November 2017

Brexit rebels banned from access to civil service papers on EU

If Britain votes to leave, Boris Johnson would be able to argue he had been more in tune with the country.
If Britain votes to leave, Boris Johnson would be able to argue he had been more in tune with the country.

Christopher Hope

British government ministers campaigning for a 'Brexit' have been banned by Whitehall's most senior civil servant from accessing official documents and prevented from receiving briefings.

In a move likely to enrage Eurosceptics, Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet secretary, has told ministers that when they campaign on EU matters they will no longer have access to official briefing papers, or get help with developing ideas for speeches.

Instead, departmental officials will be allowed only to provide them with a basic fact-checking service.

In a letter, which was distributed in Whitehall yesterday morning, Mr Heywood said: "It will not be appropriate or permissible for the Civil Service to support those who oppose the government's official position by providing briefing or speech material on this matter.


"This includes access to official departmental papers, excepting papers that ministers have previously seen on issues relating to the referendum question prior to the suspension of the collective agreement."

He adds: "Departments may check facts for such ministers on request. And civil servants should continue to support such ministers in undertaking all official government business in the usual way."

The rules will apply until May 27, when the official Whitehall purdah period begins.

Meanwhile, it is widely believed the EU referendum will play a decisive role in who succeeds David Cameron as Conservative leader.

George Osborne is in prime position to carry on Mr Cameron's legacy, having built up a formidable operation as his deputy, and he is tied in to his mission to keep Britain in the EU. Boris Johnson has always been seen as Osborne's main rival.

But given how Eurosceptic Conservative members and MPs are, might backing Brexit win Johnson the Tory leadership?

It has become a truth universally acknowledged over recent months that Mr Osborne is the Conservatives' leader in waiting. However, Tory MPs are starting to cool on the chancellor.

The level of Euroscepticism in the party seems to run deeper than Downing Street anticipated, so the EU referendum debate could strain any goodwill MPs have for senior Conservatives advocating continued membership.

Around one in three Conservative MPs was estimated initially to be in favour of leaving the EU, with suggestions that the tally of pro-Brexit MPs would be between 70-100. But now they've been free to declare where they stand, more than 150 MPs (approximately half of the party) have thrown their weight behind Brexit, with more expected to follow.

Mr Johnson's stance will allow him to ride this wave of 'outist' feeling in any prospective leadership contest.

His name recognition will put him ahead of other Conservatives who've been more overt in wanting to leave, and encourage those who've been toying with joining them.

Mr Johnson's intervention will make the decision easier for similar Eurosceptics, making him a prominent figure for Brexit-backing Tories to rally behind.

Any concerns MPs have about how long it took for him to come around to the merits of Brexit would be put aside as long as they felt he was the best possible candidate to lead the party.

Mr Johnson has recognised this in the past - writing in the 'Telegraph' back in 2001 during a previous leadership contest - that "the Tory party is a vast organism animated by a few vague common principles such as tradition and love of country, and above all by the pursuit and retention of power".


Mr Johnson will thrive if he can persuade Tory MPs that he has this winning appeal, as they have a crucial role in the leadership contest, whittling down the candidates to a final two before a postal ballot of the wider membership. "There would have to be someone in the final two who backed Brexit, as Europe is such a critical issue," one senior Tory said.

If Britain votes to leave, the potential sway to Mr Johnson would be magnified, as he would be able to argue that he had been in tune with the country, while 'Remainers' like George Osborne were on the wrong side of history. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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