Downing Street has become embroiled in a row with the main anti-EU group after Sir Eric Pickles called for it to be denied the right to lead the campaign for the leave side in the referendum.
Vote Leave accused No 10 of panicking after the former cabinet minister said he believed the group had disqualified itself by pledging to run a “nasty” campaign against opponents.
The intervention came as a new poll showed that David Cameron will improve his chances of securing a vote to stay in Europe in the referendum if he wins the support of Boris Johnson. Peter Kellner, the founder of the YouGov polling company, reports in Prospect that the pro-EU campaign would see its majority lifted from three points to 18 if the two men campaigned for an in vote. If Cameron campaigned to stay in and Johnson campaigned to leave, the bounce would be half as much – at eight points.
The prime minister would secure a majority of Tory voters (51% to 31%) for a vote to stay in Europe if he teams up with Johnson, who has flirted with the Vote Leave campaign but who welcomed Cameron’s speech on EU negotiations on Tuesday. Tory voters would side with the in campaign by a more narrow margin (41% to 38%) if the prime minister and the London mayor campaign on opposing sides.
Downing Street is likely to welcome the intervention by Pickles, who cited Vote Leave’s role in helping students to gain entry to the CBI annual conference under false pretences, where they heckled Cameron, as he called for the group to be denied official designation. In a letter to the Electoral Commission’s chief executive, Claire Bassett, he wrote: “I believe the actions of Vote Leave in disrupting the CBI conference and declaring a strategy of intimidation and protest disqualify Vote Leave from being a designated lead campaigner in the forthcoming EU referendum campaign.”
Vote Leave claimed that the Pickles letter had been prompted by panic in No 10 after what it described as the failure of Cameron’s EU renegotiation strategy. A spokesman for the group said: “No 10 is panicking. The PM’s letter to the EU has bombed, so now they are rolling out former ministers to deflect for their own failure.”
In a sign of the poisonous relations between Vote Leave and No 10, the group’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings, described the prime minister’s letter to the European council president, Donald Tusk, as “low-grade spin”. Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove, said Cameron had tabled modest demands to ensure he can campaign to keep Britain in the EU.
Downing Street issued a lengthy point-by-point document on Tuesday night challenging the claims by Vote Leave. The group hit back on Wednesday by releasing a document to show that No 10 was guilty of a “major strategic blunder” after making false claims about Cameron’s own track record on the EU.
The row between the group, which is run by Matthew Elliott, who helped Cameron defeat Nick Clegg’s proposal for electoral reform in a referendum in 2011, will fuel speculation that the prime minister will lead the pro-EU campaign in the referendum. The Conservatives for Britain group is planning a formal tie-up with Vote Leave amid fears that the signs from ministers that they are willing to soften Cameron’s most controversial demand – a four-year ban on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits – suggests that No 10 is determined to keep Britain in the EU.
Pickles, who was appointed as the government’s anti-corruption champion after he left the cabinet in May, decided to intervene after Vote Leave set up a fake company to allow two student protestors to gain entry to the CBI conference.
Cummings launched a strong defence of his tactics as he warned that companies that campaign to stay in the EU were in his “crosshairs”. He told the Daily Telegraph: “You think it is nasty? You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The Pickles letter highlighted bitter relations between the two leave camps. Arron Banks, the head of the Leave.EU campaign, said: “This goes against the grain totally and it pains me to say this but on this occasion Sir Eric Pickles is right. If we are to gain the trust of the British people in this campaign then provocative stunts and schoolboy politics is not the answer.”
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