Government spends £9.3 million on pro-Europe campaign

One of the big complaints of those campaigning for the UK to leave the European Union is that it's not a fair fight - that the Prime Minister, who wants us to remain in the EU, exploits the fearsomely efficient Whitehall machine (ha!) to argue his case, whereas they are a plucky band of salt-of-the-earth volunteers, a sort of politicised Scout movement or WI.

In practice, both Vote Leave and Leave.EU seem to me to be pretty well organised, effective and well-funded.

Arguably they are a bit more nimble and focussed than the pro-Europeans, whose message is often somewhat difficult to understand, given that the Government and the Labour Party say rather different things about why the UK should not quit (David Cameron wants less Brussels, Jeremy Corbyn would love more).

Even so, the gripe of the Leave lot that the playing field is tilted against them will go nuclear tonight, with the disclosure that the Government is spending £9.3 million of taxpayers' money to lobby all of us to vote to stay in the EU.

It is sending a leaflet to 27m households explaining - as per the leaflet's title - "why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK". That will cost £6.4m for production, printing and postage.

The leaflet will be sent out to 27 million homes. Credit: HM Government

A further £2.9m will be deployed on a social media campaign, and the creation of a website making the case for Britain in Europe.

Now £9.3m may not seem much of our money when compared with what the Government spends on health, schools or defence.

But it is a colossal sum in comparison with the permitted spending limits of the non-government campaign groups.

So the two so-called "designated" lead campaign groups - whose identities have not yet been decided by the Electoral Commission, but which are expected to be Stronger-In for the pro EU side, and either Vote Leave or Leave.EU for the outers - will not be able to spend more than £7m each.

And none of that £7m is from taxpayers; it all has to be raised from voluntary donations (which the campaign groups will certainly succeed in doing).

£2.9m will be spent on a social media campaign and the creation of a website. Credit: HM Government

So the Government's £9.3m leaflet and online effort will be seen as more than doubling the firepower of the Remain side, putting it at a massive advantage over Leave - which Leave will inevitably characterise as unfair, dirty pool.

That said, UKIP can spend up to £4m on the case for leaving under the rules. But even so, Remain's wonga looks bigger.

Downing Street insists the Government is doing nothing shifty.

It says it's following the precedent of what happened in the 1975 vote on whether to stay in the EU's predecessor, the European Community. Then the government distributed a leaflet called "Britain's New Deal in Europe".

The Government distributed a leaflet called 'Britain's New Deal in Europe' in 1975. Credit: ITV News

An official said that the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, whose job is to ensure taxpayers' resources aren't misused, has signed off the campaign.

That said, the Leave side may immediately seek a court injunction to try and prevent the massive mailshot - though this could backfire, if voters saw it as a sign that the Leavers are rattled.

Anyway I will leave to you the unmitigated pleasure of reading the Government's felicitous prose on the joys of Brussels: in England, you should receive your booklet next week, and those in the rest of the UK will get theirs in the week beginning May 9 (because senior politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland don't want the leaflet sent earlier, for fear of muddying elections for their respective parliaments on May 5).

Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is said to have signed off the campaign. Credit: PA

That said, it is perhaps not a terrible spoiler to tell you that the overwhelming thrust of the Government's case in the leaflet is economic: its big argument is that the country and individuals will be poorer if we leave the EU.

There are also assertions that the UK will be a safer country inside the EU. But strikingly there is almost nothing on the sovereignty argument, on whether the Leavers are right that our ability to shape our future will be greater on the outside.

If Leavers are looking for a crumb of comfort, it may be the implication that Downing Street seems to have concluded it cannot win on power of parliament to make law.

The overwhelming thrust of the Government's case in the leaflet is economic. Credit: HM Government