Why the £10m pro-EU leaflet could end up being far more expensive

Leave's complaints are spectacularly disingenuous. But that probably won't matter

Stephen Bush
Thursday 07 April 2016 17:45
David Cameron speaks to students at Exeter University about the benefits of the European Union
David Cameron speaks to students at Exeter University about the benefits of the European Union

Most politicians are obsessed with Radio 4’s Today programme, but elections are won and lost in the newsbreaks between songs on music radio. Radio 2 alone attracts more than 15 million people a week - four million more than voted for the Conservatives last May.

It’s also six million more votes than campaigners believe will be enough to be certain of victory in the coming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Just nine million votes – fewer than Ed Miliband got in defeat in 2015 – will be enough to take the United Kingdom out of Europe, or keep the country in.

It looks increasingly likely that those nine million votes will be for Brexit. That the referendum occurs a little over a month after elections across the United Kingdom and at the beginning of the summer means that turnout will be low – and when turnout is low, that exaggerates the preferences of the fanatical and the elderly, both of whom are disproportionately likely to favour a vote to leave the European Union.

If that happens, it’s the end, not only for Britain’s membership of the European Union, but for David Cameron’s career. Although Leave campaigners take great pains not to link the fate of the Prime Minister to the referendum – they know that anything that suggests upheaval will put off nervous swing voters – the reality is that, having failed to negotiate a deal good enough to persuade voters to stay in the European Union, it would be untenable for Cameron to stick around and set the terms of Britain’s exit.

That’s the background to a £10m leaflet, setting out the case for a vote to stay in the European Union, that will be sent out by the Government in the run-up to the vote. Although the sum is minuscule in terms of overall spending – it will cost just 34p per person (and the Government spends around £170bn a year) – it is particularly damaging to the Government; moreso than, say, the £4bn hole left in George Osborne’s budget following his U-turns over payments to disabled people.

That’s because for most people, £4bn is an unimaginably large sum, unless you are one of the people named in the Panama Papers. £10m, however, is the cost of a footballer of around average ability or an expensive house in London – it looks larger, precisely because we can understand it. The Leave campaign, meanwhile, is fanning the flames, accusing the Government of behaving unfairly.

The Brexit brigade is half-right: the Government is using all the forces it can muster to keep Britain in Europe. It’s not just the leaflet, either – whenever Cameron speaks, he does so with all the advantages of the Prime Minister. Events are prepared by the Downing Street team, and the pro-European message is served up by government spin doctors.

But they’re also spectacularly disingenuous. Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers, John Whittingdale and Priti Patel – the five Cabinet ministers who back a Leave vote – didn’t seem to have a problem with the Government advertising Help to Buy, Osborne’s wheeze to get people on the housing ladder, in marginal seats, at a far larger cost to the taxpayer than a few leaflets. Cameron, also, has a direct mandate from the British people that is only a year old – and he won that election saying that Britain was better off in a reformed European Union.

There’s just one problem. Think back to those decisive few minutes of news on the radio. Listeners yesterday woke up to the news that Iceland – not part of the European Union, but how many people know that? – is mired in corruption, that the Netherlands has rejected a European treaty in a referendum, and that despite all of that, the Government wants to spend £10m of taxpayers’ money persuading voters to stay in the European Union. It will have to be a pretty good leaflet to make up for that.

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