Cameron Heckled in Foretaste of Coming EU Referendum Campaign

  • Groups supporting exit attack CBI for backing EU membership
  • Campaigners' goal is to take opponents out of the debate

David Cameron, U.K. prime minister, gestures as he speaks during the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) annual conference in London on Nov. 9, 2015.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

As great moments in the history of protest go, two students interrupting Prime Minister David Cameron to chant questions about the credentials of the Confederation of British Industry isn’t up there with one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches. But it was a significant point in the campaign to get the U.K. out of the European Union.

Vote Leave, one of the groups campaigning for exit, set up a fake company to get the 19-year-olds into the annual conference of Britain’s biggest employers’ organization. There they stood up in the middle of Cameron’s speech to wave small banners and chant “CBI -- Voice of Brussels.” Outside, 11 people held banners with the same message.

The goal wasn’t simply to get onto the news. It was to undermine the CBI, which calls itself “The Voice of Business” and is likely to support continued EU membership in the referendum that Cameron has promised to hold by the end of 2017. It’s an echo of what the CBI experienced during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. According to Joe Pike, author of “Project Fear,” a book about that campaign, supporters of independence managed to silence the business group.

‘Bruising Experience’

“The CBI had a bruising experience in the Scottish referendum, with more than a dozen organizations resigning their membership north of the border after the group declared its opposition to independence,” Pike said in an interview. “In the end, they played no significant public role in the final months of campaigning, to the frustration of many in the campaign to keep the U.K. together.”

Vote Leave has long known that business will be a crucial voice in the referendum campaign. The group itself grew out of Business For Britain, an operation set up in 2013, officially to campaign in support of Cameron’s renegotiation of EU membership terms. Business for Britain announced last month that it had decided the prime minister wasn’t serious about change and so would be supporting Vote Leave, with which it shares a chief executive, Matthew Elliott.

One of Elliott’s previous campaigns was in the 2011 referendum on changing the voting system. He delivered a “No” result then after a campaign that focused much of its fire on Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a supporter of change.

Ad Campaign

In an advertising campaign launched this week, the group accuses the CBI of being on the wrong side of the argument on the big European questions since the late 1980s, including its advocacy of joining the single currency in 1999.

Robert Oxley, who was campaign director for Business For Britain and is now head of media for Vote Leave, was unapologetic about helping to organize the protest. “The CBI are preparing in secret to have a pro-EU campaign while pretending it was anything but,” he said in an interview outside the venue in London. “It’s not because we want to take people who disagree with us out of the debate -- the CBI aren’t having a debate.”

Cameron made light of the interruption. “Come on, guys, if you sit down now, you can ask me a question rather than making fools of yourselves by just standing up and protesting,” he said.

CBI Response

In his own speech to the conference, after the protest, CBI President Paul Drechsler accused the group’s critics of having “one aim -- undermining the credibility of the CBI to speak for you, our members.”

He said those members currently support EU membership, and that they will decide what position the group takes in the referendum. “Whilst some think we should be quiet, we know we have a legitimate right to speak out loud and clear on all the issues that matter to our members.”

Pike warned that the Scottish campaign may only be a foretaste of what’s to come in the EU vote. “This campaign is bigger and could be even more vicious,” he said. “Delegitimizing your opponents is a key part of hard-nosed political campaigning.”

Oxley knew what his measure of success was for the day.

“Ultimately, if the Ten O’Clock news runs with ‘the prime minister was heckled by people calling the CBI the voice of Brussels,’ it’s message achieved.”