5 min read
Like most of the fun bits of the way UK is governed, the idea of "purdah" is a convention not a requirement, and is not statutory.
"Purdah" (though the term is deprecated) is what prevents the government of the day spending the period before the election making government decisions (usually, but not always) related to spending that might affect the way that people voted. To give a stupid example, if tomorrow George Osborne promised to buy the entire population of Dundee a beer with treasury funds, this would be seen as a breach of the convention of purdah
It gets complicated because a government minister (though not a government employee - they have purdah too and are restricted from personal political activity at certain times, which it is no fun, I can tell you) will also be a member of a political party or interest groups campaigning in any election or referendum.
As Wragge, Lawrence and Graham note, drawing on previously published Westminster purdah guidance:
"It is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character. Decisions on matters of policy and other issues such as large and/or contentious procurement contracts 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 postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money."
So George Osborne could promise that, in the event of a no-vote, a conservative-led government would buy the entire population a beer with treasury funds - and that would be OK.
The Independence Referendum purdah is slightly more complicated as it is in fact two purdahs in one. The Scottish Government (i.e. the one having a referendum) is in purdah and is not meeting during this period (apart from the first three days, for some unexplored reason), but under the terms of para 29 of the Edinburgh Agreement (which sets out how the referendum works) the UK (Westminster) Government is in purdah even though it is still meeting.
In November last year, SNP Westminster MP Pete Wishart asked David Cameron when he was going to grow a pair and have a debate with Alex Salmond (I paraphrase). Cameron answered correctly (and most likely with one eye on the purdah he would likely be under during the time immediately before the referendum) that it was not a matter for the leader of the UK Government to debate this with the Scottish First Minister.
[As an aside - this may also be why Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are heading up to Scotland tomorrow. PMQs would surely be a farce if it didn't discuss this #indyref thing that everyone is talking about, and Cameron knows that wily pro-independence questioners could make things very difficult for him due to purdah being observed]
So when the three Westminster parties wanted to say more about the powers Scotland would have within the UK, it was a good choice (in terms of the need to observe purdah, at least) to have someone from the Labour back-benches do so. This looks less like a "government" statement, and more like a "party" statement. Labour are (or were) strong in Scotland and could be seen as the main opposition to the SNP in the Scottish Parliament.
What was odd was having George Osborne pre-announce it. Now George isn't especially popular in Scotland (or anywhere else, other than possibly his bathroom) for a number of reasons, so there was no goodwill reason for him to make the announcement. But he is Chancellor of the Exchequer, which does lend a certain "governmentyness" to an announcement about proposed government legislation and spending that directly effects the area currently having a referendum.
This was a spectacular own goal, as such a statement is very likely to be in breach of the convention of purdah. It could leave the whole referendum (but especially if a "no" is the majority) subject to judicial review or (worse) a direct legal challenge.
The quote from the panicky treasury press officer (sorry, Government Spokesman) does not clarify things at all.
"The purdah is in place to prevent taxpayers' money being spent on referendum campaign material.
"This timetable for new powers would not break purdah as the offer will come from the pro-Union parties, and not the UK government."
The first line is incorrect, purdah refers to anything that could effect the outcome of the referendum, not just spending taxpayers money on campaign material.
The second line is dubious - it is a timetable for government work, not a campaign promise. After any result, the Scottish Parliament and Westminster would speak - formally - about any redivision of powers or responsibilities. The timetable sets out ways in which this would happen, offering specific plans for what needs to be a negotiation between two governments. Those internet bampots at the magnificent Wings over Scotland have already noted that the "news" is not in the the powers offered (these are all from an earlier effort in March) but in the existence of a delivery plan.
And delivery is the business of government, not political parties.