If you thought the start of the civil service’s purdah period for the EU referendum would bring about a deafening silence, or at least a little respite to the bitterly and long-fought campaign, doubtless you’ll have been disappointed this morning.
Just before Big Ben started chiming to mark the start of purdah, the Treasury rushed out a final briefing warning of how pensions would be hit if Britain leaves the EU. Brexiters vehemently cried out that such use of the civil service was simply not cricket and betrayed the spirit of the rules the government had itself set. Remainers stayed resolute that pensioners would be worse off. And those of us in the communications business felt sympathy for the poor Treasury press officer who was probably waiting until deep into the night to hit ‘send’ on the email that sent the briefing to journalists.
Politicos and financial experts will debate the accuracy of the Treasury’s assessment until they’re blue in the face. For many amongst the public, this latest dire warning will join the long list of lamentations and proclamations of doom should we both leave or remain in the EU. Such has been the extent of ‘project fear’ by both sides in the campaign, you could almost be forgiven for thinking the result doesn’t matter – irrespective of whether we stay or remain, the End of Days is surely around the corner.
But the publication of the Treasury’s assessment does mark a very significant moment in the campaign. And, no, it’s not the start of civil service purdah. Rather, it’s an effort by the Remainers to court older voters – the so-called ‘grey vote.’
As any public affairs professional will tell you, older voters are fundamental to the outcome of any election. They are, on balance, more likely to vote. And given we’re an ageing population, there are more of them. Hence the efforts by all the main political parties to appeal to pensioners during the General Election. And hence the continued reluctance of all parties to consider cuts for pensioners that might affect bus passes and television licences.
In bringing in the grey vote, the Remainers are perhaps taking something of a risk in that there is a perception that older voters might be more inclined to leave the EU. But it’s a reflection that they need this section of the electorate on side if they’re to win the day on 23 June. The great irony, however, is that the UK’s membership of the EU could now be largely in the hands of a demographic less affected by the result than younger voters.