Why should Iain Duncan Smith have access to EU referendum papers? | Archie Bland

This will shock you, but I’m not completely convinced that Iain Duncan Smith’s world view comes from a place of objectively rational analysis. Here, then, for Iain’s sake, are an allegory and a question. IDS’s usual team is playing a football match, but the opposition have turned up with 10 men, and since IDS has always rather liked them and his own side have a couple of substitutes spare, he is allowed to switch teams for the day. He can cheer on his new team-mates, and if he shimmies past a couple of tackles and hits one into the top corner, it will still count as a goal. His usual team will, likewise, try to tackle him. Everyone is comfortable with the agreement, and so Iain pulls on his new kit. Then, just as David gets his side into a huddle and starts to run through his plan to deploy overlapping wing-backs and a pressing game, he notices that Iain has stuck his head into the circle, and is listening intently. In such circumstances, would it be unreasonable to tell him to piss off?

It doesn’t seem so to me; the Brexit campaign, however, would argue otherwise. Tomorrow, the Commons public administration select committee, led by Bernard Jenkin, will question cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood over plans to deny anti-EU cabinet members access to new government papers that could be used as part of the referendum campaign. IDS doesn’t like this. “This can’t possibly apply,” the Brexit bulldog told Andrew Marr, “because we are responsible for the departments.” Neither does his fellow Eurosceptic George Eustice, who said that it would be “very dangerous … for the civil service to get into a position of saying there’s a type of minister who can’t have access to this information”. The implication of such a stance, he went on, would be that “Eurosceptic ministers can’t be part of the government in future”.

At which the mind boggles a bit. It’s surreal that it should be necessary to do so, but for the benefit of Eustice and his colleagues, let’s review the situation. The government has a clearly stated policy on the EU referendum. In normal circumstances, any minister who felt compelled to speak out against the government position would have to resign. But in this case, ministers are allowed to campaign against the government – even, in IDS’s case, to accuse his boss of having “a low opinion of the British people” and being an advocate of a policy that will leave us “at risk of terrorist attack” – all without facing censure. According to IDS, that agreement is not enough: as well as loaning their players to the other side, the government is expected to hand over a full tactical briefing as well.

All this will doubtless play well for the leave campaign which, as David Cameron suggested last week, had a lot to gain from portraying the fight as “the establishment versus the rebel alliance”. It is, nonetheless, cobblers. The fact that the Conservatives are so deeply torn over the subject of Europe doesn’t mean that the elected government is obliged to donate its resources to those who oppose our membership. We would have thought it a bit rich if the SNP had made the same complaint during the Scottish independence campaign. This is no different. And if Jenkin is going to accuse the government of making opportunistic use of its constitutional powers to achieve partisan ends, he should be very careful: the man who will use his parliamentary committee to haul the cabinet secretary over the coals is, of course, an arch Eurosceptic.

It’s tiresome, all this: such pedantic matters of procedure don’t feel like the inspirational debate that we were promised. If the leave campaign does continue to harp on the subject, it ought to find its ability to sneer at those on the other side for their lack of an optimistic vision severely compromised. Yesterday IDS, in predictably schoolmasterish fashion, urged Cameron, “don’t play the person, play the ball”. We might say the same back to him, and add: play by the rules.

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