Former British Prime Minister John Major launched a blistering attack on Sunday (5 June) on fellow Conservatives campaigning for a Brexit, as rivals traded economic claims in an increasingly tight race for the 23 June vote.
Major condemned the “deceitful” campaign by Vote Leave, the Conservative-led group pressing for Britain to leave the European Union, saying it was making “fundamentally dishonest” claims about the potential economic consequences.
His intervention followed an accusation by Boris Johnson, the former Conservative mayor of London, that voters “cannot trust” government promises that Britain would not be forced to contribute to any future eurozone bailouts.
There are less than three weeks left in a race that opinion polls show is on a knife edge, raising the prospect of Britain becoming the first country to leave the 28-nation bloc.
The average of the last six polls calculated by the What UK Thinks research project on Sunday put both sides at 50%, excluding undecided voters. The “Remain” camp previously had a slight lead.
‘Voters being misled’
The economic consequences of staying in or leaving the EU is one of the key battlegrounds of the campaign, which is being fought between two main groups, both dominated by members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives.
Cameron’s Remain camp has raised the prospect of a recession and job losses in the event of a Brexit, while the IMF and the governor of the Bank of England have also warned of the economic risks.
Cameron warned this weekend that mortgages could also cost up to £1,000 (€1,280) a year more if Britain left the EU.
Vote Leave, the official Brexit camp, countered with a claim that 300,000 jobs could actually be created by forging new trade deals outside the European single market.
It has also claimed that an extra £100 million (€127m) could be freed up for the state-run National Health Service (NHS) by ending Britain’s contributions to the EU budget.
This prompted Cameron to accuse the Brexit camp on Saturday (4 June) of “writing cheques they know will bounce”.
Major condemns deceitful campaign
Major went further in an angry BBC interview on Sunday, accusing his fellow Conservatives in Vote Leave of making claims “they know to be inaccurate”.
He said Leave campaigners were misleading voters by saying Britain paid £350 million (€444m) a week to Brussels, when two-thirds of that came back in subsidies and a rebate. Johnson dismissed his comments.
Leave supporters have said the money could be better spent on schools and hospitals in Britain, but Major said “these promises of expenditure on the National Health Service or elsewhere are frankly fatuous”.
“If they can’t be straightforward and honest on a clear cut matter of fact like that upon what else can we trust them,” he said, in his most outspoken intervention on the campaign.
“This is a deceitful campaign,” Major said. “I am angry about the way the British people are being misled.”
Major, who was prime minister from 1990 to 1997, also condemned the focus on limiting the numbers of European citizens coming to Britain to work, saying it was “verging on the squalid”.
“I think this is a deceitful campaign and in terms of what they’re saying about immigration, a really depressing and awful campaign, they are misleading people to an extraordinary extent.”
‘Engine for job destruction’
Johnson and other senior figures in Vote Leave hit back with an open letter to Cameron, warning that staying in the EU risked trying “tying ourselves to a broken eurozone economy”.
Britain is not a member of the single currency.
“The public cannot trust EU or government promises that we won’t be paying for eurozone bailouts given the history and how we can be outvoted,” said the letter, published on the Sunday Telegraph newspaper’s website.
It said the EU has become “an engine for job destruction” and warned that Britain would have to continue accepting “unlimited migration of people trying to escape that broken economy” unless it votes to leave.
Sunday is the anniversary of Britain’s last referendum on Europe, in 1975, when 67% of voters backed continued membership in what was then the Common Market.
Johnson said the bloc had “changed out of all recognition” since then, telling BBC television: “There are fundamental ways now in which we cannot control our lives.”
The Conservative MP is widely believed to have ambitions to succeed Cameron as Conservative leader.
Major dismissed Johnson’s chances, saying he was a “charming court jester” but would be unlikely to command the loyalty of party lawmakers.
Major was the last Conservative prime minister before current incumbent David Cameron, who wants Britain to remain in the EU.
His 1990-1997 premiership was plagued by disputes within his party over Europe, including Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the predecessor to the single currency, in 1992.