The London mayor said he did not want to prevent his advisers and deputies from expressing views different to his own, after it emerged his chief of staff had sent an email telling senior colleagues to either back the London mayor’s stance on the EU referendum or keep their views to themselves.
In the email seen by the BBC, deputy mayors and senior advisers were allegedly told to “advocate the mayor’s position or otherwise not openly to contradict it”.
The position is controversial given Johnson’s criticism of the British Chambers of Commerce for suspending its director general, John Longworth, after the business leader said the UK could have a future outside the EU. Longworth later resigned.
Johnson had complained that Longworth was “crushed by the agents of Project Fear”, amid a continuing row about whether a Downing Street aides berated Longworth and the BCC president about his eurosceptic comments.
Chuka Umunna, the former shadow business secretary and prominent remain campaigner, accused the London mayor of “rank hypocrisy” for muzzling his own team.
But before the row could escalate, Johnson swiftly slapped down the advice from his own office on Tuesday morning, saying he was happy to “let a hundred flowers bloom” in terms of advisers expressing their own views.
It is understood Johnson was unaware of the guidance and lifted it as soon as he knew about the edict. The controversy came as the leave campaign launched its Women for Britain group to encourage female voters to side with Brexit.
Andrea Leadsom, a Conservative minister campaigning for Brexit, claimed on Tuesday the EU referendum debate was too “male-dominated”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme more women’s voices needed to be heard on issues such as how Brexit would affect the cost of living and influence the future of their children.
For the launch, Priti Patel, a Tory employment minister, will give a speech comparing their fight to that of Emmeline Pankhurst.
“As a suffragette, Pankhurst fought for the rights of women to have a vote, a voice and a say in how their society is governed and who governs it,” she said. “In many ways, Women for Britain are fighting for the same cause.”
Both sides are fighting for the female vote amid evidence that more women than men are undecided about how to vote in the referendum, giving them a pivotal role in deciding the outcome.
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Anushka Asthana, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 8th March 2016 09.28 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010