The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, has denied that details of a £9m taxpayer-funded pro-EU publicity blitz were released to deflect attention from the prime minister’s financial affairs.
Downing Street has announced it will spend 34p per household on 14-page booklets which are to be sent to every home in England before the EU referendum on 23 June.
Vote Leave campaigners accused No 10 of attempting to distract the public from revelations in the Panama Papers about Cameron’s late father Ian’s offshore wealth.
The data leak revealed that Cameron Sr’s Bahamas-based investment fund Blairmore never paid tax in Britain. No 10 has insisted that the prime minister, his wife, Samantha, and their children do not benefit from offshore funds or trusts and will not do so in future.
The Labour MP Graham Stringer, who supports the leave campaign, claimed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that news of the leaflet’s publication was an attempt to “divert attention from the prime minister’s immediate problems about his income”.
He said: “He is failing to answer questions. He hasn’t answered the questions about his historical income and whether that has come from tax havens or not. He needs to answer that question and it’s clearly very uncomfortable for him, and this diverts attention.”
But Fallon, who was doing the rounds on broadcast media on Thursday defending the government’s decision to spend £9m on the mass mailshot, denied it was a political ploy.
“How could it be a diversion?” he asked. “This is a leaflet that’s been weeks in preparation. It’s well beneath Graham Stringer to try and suggest we’re doing this to divert from anything else.”
The prime minister and his office have provided four statements in relation to his father’s offshore fund, but critics say Cameron has still not fully explained whether or not he benefited in the past from Blairmore.
Fallon said: “He’s answered the questions put to him and I don’t think there’s anything that can be added to that … These questions were honestly answered from the beginning, he made it very clear that he’s not benefiting from any offshore trust of this kind. He’s already answered these questions. These questions have been answered and there’s nothing more to add to them.”
The government’s plan to use taxpayer cash to fund a pro-EU leafleting campaign has sparked fury among Brexit campaigners. Boris Johnson, the London mayor, said it was “crazy” to spend public money on the leaflets.
“Given that I think it’s very likely that it will be very biased and hysterical and warning unnecessarily about the risks of leaving the EU, I think it’s a complete waste of money,” he said.
Voters in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland will also receive the booklet, but not until after elections to the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies and the Scottish parliament.
Stamped with the HM Government logo, the leaflet says in large type: “Why the government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK.”
It includes sections on the economy, immigration control and overseas travel, and warns that “a vote to leave could mean a decade or more of uncertainty”.
A spokesman for Vote Leave, in which the justice secretary, Michael Gove, plays a senior role, accused No 10 of trying to steer the focus away from Cameron’s tax affairs.
“No 10 is trying to distract the media’s attention from the issue of whether the prime minister’s family money is kept in offshore trusts,” he said. “The government promised that it would not take on the lead role in the referendum, so it’s disgraceful that they’re spending taxpayers’ money which could go to the NHS on EU propaganda instead.”
A spokesperson for Cameron said the diversion claim was “absolute nonsense” and the government had always intended to announce the leaflet campaign on Wednesday.
This article was written by Jamie Grierson, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th April 2016 09.56 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010