Last summer, MPs fought and eventually defeated the Government’s attempt to scrap the 28-day purdah period for the EU referendum. The ministerial defence of that attempt to create an opportunity to skew the referendum rules was peculiar – first they claimed purdah would prevent them presenting the results of their renegotiation (an absurd claim which has turned out to be untrue), then they claimed that it would stop Whitehall being able to work on EU matters (which has also proved to be untrue), then that it would prevent MPs from campaigning (a silly suggestion which the Commons library torpedoed in September) and ultimately they sought to reassure the Commons that even if purdah were abolished, the Government would never seek to use taxpayers’ money to support one side of the referendum. David Lidington told the House in June 2015 that “we have no intention of legislating to allow the Government to do things such as mailshots, paid advertising or leafleting [in the purdah period]“.
Now we can see quite how right MPs were to insist on the purdah period. With those 28 days out of bounds to them, the Government is pursuing distinctly sharp practice in order to skew the referendum now. Just before the official campaign period starts, it is spending £9.3 million of taxpayers’ cash to send a pro-EU leaflet to every house, and to promote a pro-EU website through a large online advertising campaign.
They aren’t in purdah yet, so that’s perfectly legal to do. But it is a highly dubious decision, both democratically and in terms of political strategy. No-one expects the Government to be silent with regard to its position on the referendum (though the agreed neutrality policy should of course apply at Conservative Party events), but there is a huge difference between Cameron campaigning with the official pro-EU campaign, using their money, and the Government deploying £9.3 million of all our taxes to put one side of the argument.
Furthermore, this heavily skews spending in the referendum. The designated campaigns on each side are allowed to spend up to £7 million, of which £600,000 for each will be a taxpayer-funded grant. This news means that not only will the Government’s pro-EU campaign on its own outspend the official Leave campaign in the whole referendum, but 88 per cent of the taxpayers’ money spent in the referendum will be used to argue in favour of staying in the EU. Michael Fallon’s untrue claim on 5 Live and the Today Programme this morning that the Leave campaign “will be getting £7 million” and that “the Leave campaign would be entitled to an equivalent amount of taxpayers’ money to put out their leaflet” was presumably an error, in which he mixed up the £600,000 grant to each side, the Government’s propaganda budget and the overall spending limit, and I hope that he will apologise and acknowledge his error without delay.
The political dangers for the Government ought to be obvious. While they are no doubt desperate to win the referendum, they should beware the backlash that could occur if they are seen to do so by unfairly skewing the debate. Deploying taxpayers’ money in this way risks securing a short-term victory at the price of a medium-term loss of faith among voters.
The internal risks to the Conservative Party are even greater. As we have argued repeatedly, Cameron should be congratulated for holding this referendum but he should also seek to ensure that the Conservative Party survives it intact. That ought to mean doing all he can to ensure that we Conservatives can disagree on the EU question but reunite after the vote has taken place. Doing so requires Party neutrality (which he has agreed in principle but which is being contravened in practice), Cabinet government (of which there is little sign), the appointment of a senior Leave figure like Gove as Deputy Prime Minister to keep things civil (which has not occurred) and a visibly fair playing field for the referendum. This propaganda spending deals a severe blow to the last of those criteria.