London Letter: Pro-EU mailshot sticks to letter of law

Electoral commission says Cameron acting within rules amid outrage over £9m spend

The Conservative government's decision to spend £9 million of public funds on sending a pro-European Union pamphlet to every household in Britain has provoked a predictably outraged response from Leave campaigners. David Cameron offered an unblinking defence of the mailshot yesterday, saying voters had a right to know the government's view on the referendum and the electoral commission said he was acting within the rules.

In Ireland, of course, Cameron's action would be impossible because the Supreme Court's 1995 McKenna judgment forbids the government from spending public money to promote only one side in a referendum campaign. Patricia McKenna took the action after the government decided to spend £500,000 promoting a Yes vote in the divorce referendum, and nothing to promote a No vote.

The court concluded that the Constitution demanded equal treatment for both sides in a referendum campaign, partly because article 40.1 guaranteed equality among citizens.

“Such expenditure also had the effect of putting the voting rights of those citizens in favour of the amendment above the voting rights of those citizens opposed to it,” it ruled, adding that it “represented an infringement of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and the constitutional right to a democratic process in referenda”.


The spending restriction comes into force in Ireland as soon as the Oireachtas legislates for a referendum but Cameron can spend as much public money as he pleases until 28 days before the referendum on June 23rd. Although the prime minister was unapologetic about the political nature of his mailshot, environment secretary Lynn Truss suggested its purpose was to slake the public's thirst for information before deciding how to vote.

“This referendum will be a huge decision for our country, perhaps the biggest we will make in our lifetimes and it is crucial that the public have clear and accessible information. Independent polling carried out on behalf of the government made clear that 85 per cent of people want more information from the government to help make an informed decision,” she said.

Voter confusion

There is no doubt that many voters believe they lack the information they need to make a considered choice about Britain’s relationship with the EU. Unfortunately, the voters’ confusion is compounded by the fact that they are unsure about how much to believe from any of the debate participants.

Legions of fact-checkers are at work, from the BBC to independent websites, testing the truthfulness of claims made on both sides. Anand Menon, one of Britain’s leading academic experts on the EU, has launched a roadshow with other experts, inviting the public to ask questions about the referendum and Britain’s EU membership.

The problem faced by all these efforts is that many of the most important questions are impossible to answer because they depend on what kind of relationship Britain will have with the EU if it votes to leave. The nature of that relationship would be a matter of negotiation between Britain and the other EU member states, and it’s difficult to predict the outcome of such a negotiation.

The task is made more difficult by the fact that Leave campaigners have, in the words of pro-EU Conservative MP Nick Herbert, "more positions than the Kama Sutra" on the ideal trading relationship for a post-EU Britain.

Trade arrangements

“It’s hard to keep up with the differing models for Britain’s trade arrangements outside the EU which


campaigners suggest. They are split between the anti-immigration Farage camp who want to pull up the drawbridge, even if it harms Britain’s economy, and the internationalist ideologues who want Britain to be the new

Hong Kong

with ‘generous levels’ of migration,” he wrote on the website CapX.

While Leave campaigners stretch voters' credulity by blaming the EU for everything from the Brussels attacks to the difficulties faced by Britain's steel industry, the Remain side's warnings of catastrophe are also meeting public scepticism. Cameron's credibility as an advocate for the benefits of EU membership is not enhanced by the fact that he has spent most of his political career until now either grumbling about Europe or denouncing it. Labour's campaign to stay in the EU is likewise undermined by Jeremy Corbyn's opposition to almost every pro-EU piece of legislation debated in parliament over the past three decades.

On the Leave side, London mayor Boris Johnson has so far proved to be a bumbling, ill- prepared figurehead, who often appears as ignorant of the issues as the most poorly informed voter. As for Ukip, the party which led the charge for a referendum, it launched its manifesto for next month's Scottish elections yesterday, promising to increase the drink-driving limit and allow smoking in pubs. A bright future for Britain indeed.