Boris Johnson and Michael Gove stand accused of breaching the ministerial code after using public funds for a no-deal Brexit ad campaign claimed to be “nakedly partisan”.
Billboards, mugs and newspaper adverts warning people to ‘Get Ready For Brexit’ on October 31 were green-lighted by the PM and cabinet minister Gove and paid for with £100m of public cash.
But a cross-party group of MPs, led by Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson, says the campaign is based something which cannot be government policy since a new law has made a no-deal Brexit at Halloween illegal.
In a letter to top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill, seen by HuffPost UK, Swinson says the ads are not only “redundant and misleading” but trumpeting a Tory message with public money.
The ministerial code states that ‘ministers must not use government resources for party political purposes’.
The letter underlines to Sedwill: “It is no longer factual to suggest the UK can leave without a deal.”
MPs say ministers may also be in breach of guidance on public communications, which says that ‘all paid publicity work must be objective, factual, appropriate and intended to communicate government policies’.
MPs add: “Unless the government indeed plans to follow through on previous threats to ignore both parliament and UK law, this campaign is now both redundant and misleading.
“An extension is expected to be forthcoming or a deal will have been secured, meaning that nobody will face the October 31 cliff edge.”
It comes as the country is braced for a snap election, with the prime minister set to compete for votes with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, whose core policy is a no-deal Brexit.
An election in either November and early December has been suggested as Johnson is set to face a vote of no-confidence if, as seems likely, he fails to get his new domestic agenda through parliament on October 15.
The letter adds that the campaign may have been “shaped by party political considerations” from the outset, amid reports that Vote Leave’s famous ‘Take Back Control’ slogan was rejected as its original title.
The letter reads: “I do not believe there can be any justification for spending £100m of public money disseminating information that is no longer factual, no longer anything other than nakedly partisan, and no longer the policy of any government that intends to operate within the law.
“Whilst the campaign has been launched with the slogan ‘Get Ready’, it has been reported that ‘Take Back Control’ was previously under consideration by the government, before being dismissed as too overtly partisan, it being the slogan of the official Leave campaign.
“I think, from the outset, this campaign has been shaped by party-political considerations.”
A government spokeswoman said the legal default remains that the UK will leave the EU at Halloween.
She said: “Impartiality is one of the fundamental values of the civil service and underpins its ability to effectively serve the government of the day. The civil service code clearly sets out that all staff should adhere to the principles of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.
“The legal position remains that the UK is due to leave the EU on October 31. As such, this campaign is part of our work as a responsible government to provide important information and guidance to people and businesses on what they need to do to get ready for Brexit.”
The accusation tops a damaging week for Johnson’s authority after the Court of Session ruled his controversial decision to shutdown parliament ahead of Brexit was unlawful.
The PM, who has lost his majority in the Commons after throwing 21 of his own MPs out of the party for voting against him, also faced six successive defeats in the Commons over the anti-no-deal Brexit bill.
Johnson strongly denied claims he misled the Queen over the prorogation of parliament when he sought the monarch’s consent for the five-week shutdown.
He insists the move allows the government to bring forward a new domestic agenda.
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