Sedwill urged to block no-deal Brexit during election campaign due to purdah rules
Jeremy Corbyn says departure would contravene principle that government doesn’t implement policies in an election period where the opposition has a different view
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has been urged to clarify whether the government would be able to go ahead with a no-deal Brexit even if the 31 October date for leaving the European Union fell during an election campaign.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has written to Sedwill asking for an explanation after reports that prime minister Boris Johnson has considered holding an election on 1 November, the day after potentially leaving the bloc without a deal on 31 October.
There has been debate about whether the government could go ahead with a no-deal Brexit during an election. Although it is currently the legal default to leave on 31 October without an agreement if one has not been reached with the EU, governments are not meant to take decisions “of a long-term character in their capacity as a minister” during a pre-election purdah period.
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In his letter to Sedwill, Corbyn said that forcing through a no-deal exit, which it has been reported is now Johnson's “central scenario”, during a general election campaign would be “an unprecedented, unconstitutional and anti-democratic abuse of power”.
“I would therefore be grateful for your confirmation that, if the UK is due to leave the EU without a deal during a general election campaign, the government should seek a time-limited extension to Article 50, to let the electorate decide and the incoming government to take the next steps on the basis of the voters’ wishes.”
He said clarification was needed “on the proper application of ‘purdah’ rules in such a scenario and the constitutional implications of failing to abide by those rules”.
Corbyn’s letter stated: “Purdah guidance makes clear that ‘decisions on matters of policy on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present government should be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money’.
“As government assessments make clear, a no-deal Brexit would have a deeply damaging impact on the economy, with serious consequences for jobs, living standards and industry in this country. A Labour government will never support a no-deal exit, so would of course ‘want the opportunity to take a different view’.”
He asked Sedwill to confirm that if the UK is due to leave the EU without a deal during a general election campaign, the government should seek a time-limited Article 50 extension “to let the electorate decide and the incoming government to take the next steps on the basis of the voters’ wishes”.
The Cabinet Office said Sedwill would respond to Corbyn "in due course".
Corbyn's letter comes as Institute for Government’s senior fellow Catherine Haddon warned that placing the civil service under purdah rules during the run up to a no-deal Brexit would restrict its ability to prepare.
In a blog published following the elections speculation, Haddon said that pre-election restrictions on areas including government communications would affect preparations.
Pre-election guidance makes clear that the government remains in power and ministers in departments, she said, but also says that “no new action should take place unless it is in the national interest or unless not acting would waste public money”, although essential business should continue.
“In general, no-deal preparation should be covered by those caveats,” Haddon said. “Preparing would be essential and it is already government policy – and it would be preparation for an exit that has previously been legislated for by parliament and continues to be the legal default. However, the guidance also says that decisions ‘on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present government should be postponed until after the election’. The main parliamentary opposition parties are all implacably opposed to no deal, and no deal preparations do not – as we discovered in March – necessitate a no deal Brexit.”
As a result, continuing with no deal preparation could undermine the political impartiality of the civil service.
“The civil service might have to ask for a direction – formal instructions from ministers telling their department to proceed with a spending proposal – from the government, particularly if there was any significant new spend during the campaign period,” she added.
Communications urging people to prepare for a no-deal Brexit would also be hindered on the basis that “government activity is not supposed to compete with the election campaign for public attention”, according to Haddon..
“Indeed, the government is promising a media blitz to shake businesses out of their complacency. Cancelling those communications would undermine that plan – compounded by the risk an election itself would make many watch for the outcome rather than prepare.”
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