David Cameron has moved to calm his dramatic row with Boris Johnson over the EU referendum, but faced fresh tensions with Eurosceptic ministers and his first direct call from a Tory MP to stand down if he loses the referendum.
The prime minister took a more conciliatory tone towards Johnson on Tuesday, saying he was a “great friend” who was simply wrong to back the leave campaign. It marked a shift in his approach after he had repeatedly mocked and dismissed the mayor of London’s position on Monday in the House of Commons, prompting Eurosceptics to warn him to be “nicer to Boris”. Former foreign secretary William Hague has also called on his Tory colleagues not to use the referendum to further personal feuds and warned it could lead to a bitter divide in the party.
But there are signs the rancour is only deepening, as Eurosceptic ministers are unhappy that they have been denied access to government briefings relating to the EU referendum, such as on Treasury costings of Britain’s membership. They have also been prevented from drawing on the expertise of civil servants to make their cases for Brexit, apart from basic fact-checking, although they can still call on their political special advisers for help.
Nadine Dorries, a Conservative backbencher, became the first to demand that Cameron steps down as prime minister if he loses the referendum.
She said: “If the British public vote to leave the EU, I would imagine and hope the first thing David Cameron would do is stand down as prime minister.”
The Mid Bedfordshire MP, a leave campaigner and long-term critic of Cameron, also complained about the difficulty of going up against “the government machine and No 10 and civil servants pushing the remain campaign”.
Cameron has repeatedly insisted that he would want to stay on and lead negotiations to take Britain out of the EU if the leave campaign won. But Eurosceptic MPs, who now number over a third of the Conservative parliamentary party, are already saying in private that his position would be untenable as he would have lost the confidence of his MPs.
The prime minister has begun a series of campaign trail visits to make the arguments for staying in the EU. In a speech to O2 employees in Berkshire, the prime minister stressed the importance of Britain’s membership for national security and economic prosperity.
Asked about Johnson’s decision to back the out campaign, he said the London mayor was still one of his great friends but had simply “got it wrong” on the EU issue.
He heavily emphasised his own experience of being prime minister for six years, implying that the mayor of London did not have as great an insight on matters of national security.
“I have been thinking about it very, very deeply and all the things I have learned over the last six years as prime minister,” he said to an audience of hundreds of workers.
“I think six, 10, 15 years ago, I don’t think I believed Europe was quite so important to our security as I believe it is now,” he said, citing Syria, the migration crisis, Iran’s nuclear programme and economic crises as issues on which it was vital to be at the table in Brussels.
“I have huge respect for Boris as a politician and he is a great friend of mine, and he is a fantastic mayor of London. I think he has a lot to give to the Conservative party and to this country, but on this issue I think he has got it wrong and reached the wrong conclusion.”
Cameron also revealed he had been “talking to Boris for many weeks” by text and in person about the EU, in a sign of the importance he placed on the mayor’s endorsement.
It emerged over the weekend that Johnson had initially appeared to swing in favour of the remain campaign but informed Cameron of his decision by email on Saturday morning and again by text nine minutes before his formal announcement on live television on Sunday afternoon. He received no reply.
Cameron’s central arguments in his speech centred on the need to stay in the EU to maintain national security and economic cooperation, ideas that are likely to repeated until 23 June. He also said the EU was likely to become “more protectionist” if the UK left, that Brexit would “weaken the west” at a time of risks from Islamic State and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and that a would-be bomber after 7/7 was brought back to London to stand trial because of European cooperation.
Most polls suggest the remain camp is ahead but a minority have put leave in the lead, with the out camp arguing that Cameron’s deal with Brussels has actually increased the desire for the UK to leave the EU.
A YouGov poll for the Times found leave support has dropped seven points to 38%, putting it neck and neck with 37% opting to stay. A new report published by NatCen Social Research has found widespread Euroscepticism among the British public, including majority support for wide-ranging reforms of the EU, and considerable concern about the cultural impact of the EU.
However, the research conducted by Professor John Curtice in November found that a majority are unlikely to vote to leave unless they are also persuaded that Britain would be better off economically outside the EU.
It showed that two thirds of the British public can be considered Eurosceptic and 65% either want the UK to leave the EU (22%) or for the EU’s powers to be reduced (43%).
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