David Cameron has been accused of bias by a senior Brexit campaigner after promising to force through legislation to extend the deadline for registering to vote in the EU referendum.
It follows the chaotic collapse of a government website on Tuesday night as 250,000 people tried to apply in the final hours before the midnight deadline.
The prime minister urged the public to keep on submitting their details, saying he was working urgently to ensure they would be able to take part in the referendum.
MPs are to vote on Thursday on a 48-hour extension to the deadline to register, which is expected to allow tens of thousands more people to vote on 23 June. The new deadline would be midnight on Thursday.
The pro-Brexit Tory Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee, questioned why the government was failing to put in the same effort to find misregistered EU citizens who had been issued polling cards.
“The government is having to rewrite the rules to clear up a shambles of their own making. Why are they are not acting with the same vigour over weeding out misregistered EU nationals who have been sent polling cards and even postal ballots, but who are not eligible?” Jenkin said.
He warned that if the referendum result was close, the decision could be challenged by a judicial review because of the deadline’s extension. Political observers said many of those who could not register were younger voters, who tend to support the remain camp.
Following emergency discussions with the Electoral Commission and opposition parties, the government plans to table a statutory instrument to amend the referendum conduct regulations, reducing from five to three the number of working days before the poll that the electoral lists must be published.
This will extend the registration deadline to the end of Thursday, while preserving a separate five-day period for appeals against entries on the register.
The website’s collapse emerged at around 10.15pm on Tuesday when dozens of potential voters complained on Twitter that they could no longer input their details into the website. Voters had been encouraged for weeks to register before 11.59pm to be able to take part in the referendum. The elections watchdog and opposition politicians including Jeremy Corbyn called for the government to step in to extend the deadline.
A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said: “We have said to the government this morning they should consider options for introducing legislation as soon as possible that would extend the deadline. We would support such a change.”
Although the website was down for only two hours, a Downing Street spokesperson said it had been decided to extend the deadline by 48 hours to allow potential voters a further chance to sign up. The two campaigns, Vote Leave and Stronger In, were not involved in the discussions, the spokesperson added.
Downing Street said 214,000 people were trying to use the voter registration website between 9pm and 10pm on Tuesday, but it was not known how many were prevented by the system overload from registering before the deadline.
At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Cameron told the House of Commons: “People should continue to register today. The Electoral Commission has made a statement this morning urging the government to consider options that would effectively extend the deadline and these should include legislative options, and we are doing that.”
Those who support leaving the EU were suspicious that the collapse of a government website was being exploited by the remain camp. The chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign, Matthew Elliott, said the government was “trying to register as many likely remain voters as possible”. He said in a message to supporters: “Don’t let the government skew the result of the referendum – make sure you and your friends are all registered today.”
Responding to Elliott’s comments, Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, suggested he was a conspiracy theorist. “Vote Leave’s anger is a reflection of their paranoid, anti-democratic attitudes,” she said. “They want to con the British people into voting to leave Europe on a derisory turnout. However much they talk about sovereignty, it is clear they have no respect for the democratic rights of the British people.”
A leading Brexit campaigner, Michael Gove, said changes to the voting regulations would take the government into “complex legal waters” but he offered support for an extension to the deadline. “In my heart is a desire to ensure that everyone possible can be given the vote,” he said.
The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, also appeared to agree that the voter registration deadline should be extended for a day. “I think there have been some pretty big clarion calls for people to register and my understanding is that a very, very large number of people have. So if the website crashed last night then maybe the sensible thing is to extend it by a day but I really wouldn’t go beyond that,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
According to government data, more than 50,000 people attempted to register to vote between 11.15pm and 11.20pm on Tuesday.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said questions remained over the failure of the government’s IT. “Given the history of government IT problems, it is extraordinary that there were no contingency arrangements in place. Instead we have blind panic and chaos,” he said. “It seems many trying to register were young people. It would be a travesty if their first experience of democracy was this shambles.”
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said officials became aware of technical issues on gov.uk/register-to-vote late on Tuesday night and they were due to “unprecedented demand”. “We tried to resolve the situation as quickly as was possible and to resolve cases where people tried to register but were not able to.”
• This article was amended on 9 June 2016 to restore “not” to the sub-heading.