Last week the government announced that it was spending £9.3 million on pro-EU leaflets which would be distributed to every home in the UK.
Over fourteen pages, the leaflet warns of the “uncertainty” of leaving the EU while simultaneously trumpeting EU membership, which allegedly makes us more prosperous than alternative arrangements would.
A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission has criticised the government’s decision to distribute the leaflets: “we don’t think the government should have done it, but it’s not illegal”. The Electoral Commission also warned Cameron that using Government funds to support his campaign is “not in the spirit” of a fair referendum.
Meanwhile, the Leave Campaign offered it own criticism. Michael Gove, the justice secretary and Vote Leave leader, argued that it is “wrong that at a time of austerity £9m of taxpayers’ money is going on a one-sided piece of propaganda”.
London Mayor Boris Johnson suggested that the Prime Minister abandoned his promise of a “fight fair” during the referendum when he realised the Remain Campaign was “losing the argument”.
Meanwhile, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan pointedly remarked that: “whether or not you want to stay in the EU, there is something outrageous about spending our own money on telling us what to think.” Like Boris, Hannan suggests that the government made its decision to distribute the leaflets because they were “starting to panic”.
Whether or not the government is “starting to panic”, it may come to regret its leaflets if it hasn’t already done so.
In an article for the Financial Times, journalist Sebastian Payne suggests that the government looks as if it is “stacking the debate its favour” because “the official Leave campaign will only be able to spend £7m.”
By giving this impression, the government is inadvertently reinforcing the Eurosceptic narrative that the EU is supported by “megaglobal government elites” whose Europhilia is explained by their vested interests, and for whom democracy is an obstacle to be overcome. As a result, “the more Mr Cameron appears to use his position to benefit the pro-EU argument, the more it will empower the already highly motivated Brexit campaigners.”
Payne’s warning that the EU leaflets would energise Brexiteers has proven correct. A petition against the government’s use of taxpayer’s money on pro-EU leaflets has gained more than 212,000 signatures: comfortably over the 100,000 needed for it to be debated in the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, members of the Midlands Industrial Council, a group of businessmen which has bankrolled the Conservative party for 20 years, plan to donate between £4m and £5m to the Leave Campaign in a bid to redress the balance.