- ‘Leave’ supporters cite report about potential refugee influx
- Criticism of Cameron adding to EU referendum unpredictability
Campaigners pushing for the U.K. to leave the European Union stepped up their focus on immigration as divisions in David Cameron’s Conservative Party threatened to drown out arguments about the economic advantages of remaining in the bloc.
With Tory rebels pouring scorn on their prime minister’s efforts to control the number of arrivals, those fighting for a so-called Brexit seized on a report suggesting up to half a million refugees could be headed for the U.K. after 2020 if voters opt to stay in the EU. As the “Leave” campaign zeroes in on immigration, Cameron’s side planned to push the benefits of membership for small business. The economic argument for “Remain” was buoyed Tuesday by the support of executives from European companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Siemens AG.
With the June 23 vote just over three weeks away, long-standing tensions in the Conservative party are leading to increasingly personal attacks on the prime minister. As both sides of the EU debate ramp up the rhetoric, the vitriol looks likely to leave scars long after the referendum.
“The ‘Remain’ campaign may try to tell you that immigration and the economy are separate, but the truth is that they are fundamentally linked,” Conservative member of parliament -- and, until March, Cameron’s Work and Pensions Secretary -- Iain Duncan Smith said. “Immigration is an economic issue because it has had a big impact on people’s wages -- forcing them down, even as the cost of living has risen.”
While online polls suggest the race is too close to call, some phone surveys have shown a wide lead for “Remain.” The most recent online survey, completed by BMG Research May 25, showed 44 percent in favor of staying in the EU and 45 percent supporting an exit. A phone poll by Survation that ended a day earlier gave the pro-EU camp a six-point lead.
Migration Watch, the U.K. policy group that campaigns for more controls on immigration, said in a report on Tuesday that refugees who have fled to Europe since the start of 2015 could move unhindered to the U.K. after claiming EU citizenship. The report suggested that between 240,000 and 480,000 people could fall into this category.
Duncan Smith said this was “more evidence of the uncontrollable scale of immigration to this country” because of EU membership. The Britain Stronger in Europe group described the numbers as “completely wrong.”
The pro-Brexit lobby is seeking to capitalize on data published by the Office of National Statistics last week that showed Cameron is failing to deliver on a pre-election pledge to slash the number of foreigners coming to live in Britain. Net migration to the U.K. rose to 333,000 in 2015, just below the record, the ONS said on Thursday. The prime minister has promised to bring the figure to below 100,000.
Business Secretary Sajid Javid tried to shift the focus of the debate back to economics, saying that analysis by his department showed 1.2 million small- and medium-sized businesses in Britain rely on trade with firms in other EU countries.
“If we leave the EU, small firms are on the front line and that’s a gamble with people’s livelihoods I’m not willing to take,” Javid said in a statement.
Separately, a group of 51 executives from around Europe, including Vodafone Chief Executive Officer Vittorio Colao, Rolls-Royce chairman Ian Davis and the CEOs of Moller-Maersk, Shell, Nestle and Siemens, said in a letter to the Financial Times that the EU would be less prosperous if the U.K. decided to leave.
“We believe the case for Europe working and staying together has never been stronger,” they wrote.
The immigration figures prompted questions about Cameron’s leadership over the weekend when former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, prominent Conservative campaigners for Brexit, said the premier’s broken promises were “corrosive of public trust” in a letter to the Sunday Times newspaper.
Cameron spoke on Monday at a campaign event in London alongside the city’s Mayor Sadiq Khan of the opposition Labour Party. The two leaders outlined “guarantees” that could be made if the U.K. remained in the EU, including the protection of workers’ rights and full access to the bloc’s single market.
“Asked what things would be like if we left the EU, the Leave campaign says, ‘We just don’t know,”’ Cameron said on Twitter after the event. “That isn’t good enough.”