Cameron Assailed by Johnson and Gove in Two-Pronged Attack on EU

  • Johnson slams suspension of business chief amid EU debate
  • Gove says EU helped to fuel advances by Europe's far right

David Cameron endured a two-pronged attack on the European Union from senior Conservatives favoring a British exit, threatening further scars to the government before the June 23 referendum.

London Mayor Boris Johnson repeated his opposition to the prime minister’s pro-EU stance on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show,” saying that staying in the bloc is “the risky option,” and lamenting the suspension of the chief of a business lobby group who had spoken out in favor of leaving. Justice Secretary Michael Gove told the Sunday Times that the EU had inflicted “pain” on Europe, where the far right is now stronger than “any time since the 1930s.”

David Cameron and Boris Johnson
David Cameron and Boris Johnson
Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

The debate’s increase in temperature underscores the risk of longer-term damage to the ruling Conservative Party as it revisits a split that has plagued its time both in office and opposition since the 1970s. Johnson has accused the pro-EU camp of adopting a “Project Fear” approach to scaring people into staying in the bloc, and invoked similar sentiments on the BBC as he spoke of the opportunities that the referendum presented.

“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 beyond,” he said. “Actually it will be wonderful.”

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, speaking on the same BBC program, warned though that if the U.K. votes to leave the EU, it will still have to “pay in” if it wants access to the European single market, and painted a bleak post-“Brexit” picture.

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On Saturday, Johnson said it was “scandalous” that John Longworth, the British Chambers of Commerce director general, had been suspended for speaking out in favor of leaving the EU, the Sunday Telegraph reported. He had been “crushed” by the “agents” of the campaign led by Cameron, the paper cited Johnson as saying.

BCC President Nora Senior denied that in a statement released later on Sunday, saying that “no politician or interest group had any influence” on the decision. She also announced that Longworth has now quit.

Mutual Agreement

“His subsequent resignation was agreed mutually between Mr, Longworth and the BCC Board, and there were no external factors involved,” Senior said.

The focus of Gove’s comments in the Sunday Times highlighted how the far right in Europe has risen at a time of austerity, particularly in Greece.

“Our security and sovereignty stand together,” Gove told the newspaper. “I believe that there are better opportunities to keep people safe if we are outside the European Union.”

The German finance minister said that a British exit would be damaging for the international economy as well as Britain’s own.

“We would have years of the most difficult negotiations, which would be very difficult for the EU as well,” Schaeuble said on the Marr program. “And for years we would have such insecurity that would be a poison to the economy in the U.K., the European continent and for the global economy as well.”

Legal Advice

Johnson also told Marr that he had kept an open mind on the matter until recently. Officials had sought to devise a clause for the summit deal with EU partners that would distinguish the U.K.’s sovereignty and reestablish the supremacy of its courts. They found language that he was “very pleased” about, before government lawyers “blew up” and declared it incompatible with existing legislation, he said.

“We were told that there was going to be fundamental reform,” he said. “We didn’t achieve that, and I think that the lesson of the whole business is that reform is not achievable.”

Yvette Cooper, a Labour Party lawmaker who favors Britain staying in the EU, criticized the spectacle and Cameron and Johnson, who knew each other when younger at the fee-paying Eton College.

“You’ve just got an increasingly hysterical battle for the future of the Tory party and they’re trying to hijack the future of the country,” Cooper told Sky News. “We cannot let them do that. This has got to be about our future as Britain and why we’ll be stronger in Europe, and not get sucked into a battle between old Etonians.”

Polling before the latest remarks suggests Cooper’s side seems to be winning the public opinion battle for now. The past four consecutive polls by YouGov Plc show a lead for the “remain” camp, according to an article posted on its website on Saturday. In a sample taken on March 2-3, 40 percent favored staying in the EU, compared with 37 percent against and 18 percent stating “don’t know.”

In the meantime, with 3 1/2 months to go before the vote, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, another advocate of leaving the EU, said that discord at the top of the party shouldn’t be overplayed.

“I think it’s got to be kept civil but I don’t think it’s sensational that there are going to be disagreements between members of the cabinet and the prime minister, he said. “That’s going to be inevitable.”

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