The head of a major British business group resigned from his post on Sunday (6 March) after publicly backing leaving the European Union, sparking a row over whether he had stepped down due to political pressure.
John Longworth stepped down as head of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) after he expressed support for Britain leaving the EU at the group’s annual conference, despite the BCC’s official stance of neutrality.
In a statement, BCC president Nora Senior said that “no politician or interest” had influenced Longworth’s decision, saying that his expression of pro-Brexit views was “likely to create confusion” on the group’s neutral stance.
By the BCC’s own admission, its neutrality in the referendum debate “reflects the real divisions that exist in business communities across the UK.”
“All representatives of the BCC have the right to personal and political views on the key issues of the day. However, they are not expected to articulate these views while acting in their professional capacity, as their views could be misconstrued as representing the position of the organisation as a whole.” — BCC.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s office was forced to deny that it had leaned on the BCC to suspend Longworth following his remarks.
“We are clear no pressure was put on the BCC to suspend him,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Eurosceptics up in arms
But eurosceptic politicians dismissed the defence, claiming that Longworth had been a victim of “Project Fear” — the nickname they have given the campaign to stay in the EU because of its focus on the security and economic risks of ending Britain’s 43-year-old membership of the European bloc.
“Well done Downing Street. You got your man,” wrote Douglas Carswell, an MP for the eurosceptic UK Independence Party, on Twitter.
“This is what Project Fear looks like. Nasty people in Number 10.”
Earlier on Sunday, London mayor Boris Johnson, the leading advocate of the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, said that Longworth’s suspension was “absolutely scandalous”.
“It cannot be right that when someone has the guts to dissent from the establishment line, he or she is immediately crushed by the agents of Project Fear,” Johnson said in a statement.
Cameron and Johnson are both members of the Conservative party but they have long been rivals, and the campaign for the June 23 referendum has pitted them head to head.
The prime minister has accused Johnson of being motivated by a desire to one day replace him in Downing Street, but the mayor dismissed the allegation on Sunday as “cobblers”.
“To the best of my knowledge there is not a single EU leader in the last 20 years who has had to step down as a result of a referendum, whether on Europe or not,” Johnson said in a BBC interview.
Speaking to the same programme, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble repeated the warning he issued to British business leaders this week that a Brexit would send shockwaves across the EU.
“For years we would have such insecurity that would be a poison to the economy in the UK, the European continent and for the global economy as well,” he told the BBC, speaking in German.
However, Johnson said the referendum was “a golden opportunity to shrug off a regulatory, legislative burden that is profoundly undemocratic”.
The mayor added: “This is like the jailer has accidentally left the door of the jail open and people can see the sunlit land beyond, and everybody is suddenly wrangling about the terrors of the world outside.
“Actually it would be wonderful.”
During his campaign fro re-election in 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union and organise a referendum to decide whether or not Britain should remain in the 28-member bloc.
The British PM said he will campaign for Britain to remain in the EU after a two-day summit in Brussels where he obtained concessions from the 27 other EU leaders to give Britain “special status” in the EU.
But EU leaders had their red lines, and ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday night (19 February) said he would campaign for Britain to stay in a reformed EU, after securing promises of treaty change and compromising on his demands over benefits for EU migrants and their children.
The decision on whether to stay or go could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.
The campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of euroscepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.
- 23 June: Referendum.
- July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.