Insults, smears and planting stories in tabloids have become dominant features of an acrimonious campaign for the June 23 referendum on Britain’s future in the EU, as personality clashes prevail over policy differences in the ruling Conservative Party.
The “Remain in EU” and Brexit camps are led by leading lights of the Conservatives, including Prime Minister David Cameron and popular former London mayor Boris Johnson. Johnson has been challenging Cameron to a live television debate.
Amid much dismay and hand-wringing, Conservative MP Steve Baker has even accused 10 Downing Street of planting stories against the Brexit camp in mass circulation tabloids, a claim not accepted by the Prime Minister’s spokesman.
“I will not pretend the European Union debate could be without its ferocious moments: we always expected this to be a passionate contest. What I did not expect was how quickly the Remain campaign would descend into insults, personal attacks and petty tabloid smears on key people,” Baker wrote on a grassroots Conservative party website.
He added: “There have also been intolerable media smears against our leading figures and their families. It is a dark day indeed when Conservatives believe that the centre is behind such vicious briefing.
“If we’re to come together after this referendum, personal nastiness must end now.”
A Downing Street spokesman was confident the party will unite after the referendum, but said: “We don’t accept Steve Baker’s article. All our arguments are rooted in the thought that we are stronger, safer and better off in the EU.”
Foreign Office minister Huge Swire acknowledged to Hindustan Times that the party is under strain due to claims and counter-claims by leading members, including ministers. The Cameron government’s official position is that Britain should remain in the EU.