Jeremy Corbyn has accused cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill of being “non-committal” over the legality of a purdah-period Brexit if a general election is called in the run-up to October 31.
The Labour leader wrote to Sedwill last week seeking clarity on how Whitehall would handle the rules on key decisions during election periods if new prime minister Boris Johnson called a snap poll or the government lost a vote of confidence.
Corbyn had argued that if Johnson tried to force through a no-deal Brexit during the run-up to election day, it would be “an unprecedented, unconstitutional and anti-democratic abuse of power”. He asked Sedwill for assurances that such a move would be blocked.
However Sedwill’s three-paragraph response, circulated by Corbyn to party leaders and other senior MPs, said only that purdah rules were set out in chapter two of the cabinet manual.
“Let me reassure you that I am ready to ensure their full and proper application according to the circumstances at the time,” Sedwill said.
Corbyn revealed Sedwill’s response as part of his call for cross-party backing to form a “strictly time limited temporary government” aimed at preventing a no-deal Brexit on October 31 – the next notional Brexit day.
The letter told recipients including SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford; Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson; Plaid Cymru Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas that Sedwill’s response was “non-committal” and “should inform our discussions” on countering a no-deal Brexit.
“While it is likely that the issue will be contested in the courts, our priority should be to work together in parliament to prevent a deeply damaging no-deal being imposed on the country, denying voters the final say,” Corbyn said.
Institute for Government director Bronwen Maddox said Corbyn may have decided to take an overly pessimistic view of Sedwill’s response in light of the cabinet manual’s rules on purdah – designed to stop governments taking unfair advantage of their incumbency during an election period, when parliament is dissolved.
“It is possible that Sedwill offers him more reassurance than he has chosen to take,” she wrote on the IfG website.
“[The purdah rules] say that the government can carry on essential business during a campaign but cannot initiate or announce major policy decisions or take actions of a long-term character.
“Sedwill’s remark could be interpreted to mean that he is open to arguments that it would not be proper for the government to let the UK leave the EU during the campaign.”
Sedwill’s letter concluded by stating that the timing of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union was “a matter for the European Council under A50 of the Lisbon Treaty and Parliament under the terms of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018”.
Proponents of a purdah-period Brexit would argue that because the UK’s currently scheduled departure date from the European Union is October 31, no key decisions would be required to enact it in the event an election was called.
Corbyn said MPs from across parliament had “responded positively” to his call.
SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was prepared to work across party lines to stop a no-deal Brexit, and urged Swinson to reconsider her stance.
However she said Corbyn’s plan – which aims to lay the ground for a general election in which Labour would campaign for a public vote on a range of Brexit scenarios as well as staying in the EU – was “not the only possible option”.
Plaid Cymru's Saville Roberts published a letter of support for Corbyn’s plan via Twitter.