Leaving the EU would be an act of political arson that risks the destruction of international order, the former foreign secretary David Miliband has said.
In one of the starkest warnings of the referendum debate so far, Miliband argued that the impact of Brexit could extend far beyond the UK and that it could have a disastrous effect on the rest of the world.
Writing for the Guardian before delivering a key speech in Westminster on Tuesday, he said it would amount to “giving up on our alliances” with the rest of the world.
“It means forsaking our position at the negotiating table and abandoning our international responsibilities – unilateral political disarmament. No nation in human peacetime history has voluntarily given up as much political power as we are being invited to throw away on 23 June.”
The former politician, who lost the Labour leadership race to his brother Ed in 2010, said leaving the EU could set off a domino effect across the world.
“The British question is not only one of what we get out of Europe. It is also one of whether we want to shore up the international order, or contribute to its dilution and perhaps even destruction,” said Miliband, who now heads the International Rescue Committee in New York.
“Britain cannot solve these problems alone. But we do more in and for the world than our modest size would suggest. At our best, we lead in defending the values, building the structures and defining the substance of international cooperation.
“If the world is increasingly divided between firefighters and arsonists, then Britain has for centuries been a firefighter. This is no time for Britain to join the ranks of arsonists and there should be no doubt that Brexit would be an act of arson on the international order.”
The EU referendum debate was further inflamed on Monday by a row over the government’s decision to spend £9m on sending a leaflet making the case for the remain camp to every household in Britain.
David Lidington, the Europe minister, defended the leaflet in the House of Commons by claiming the government would be “abrogating its responsibility” if it neglected to make its case to citizens. He was backed by Pat Glass, the shadow Europe minister, who said it was “perfectly reasonable” for the government to make its case to people.
However, Lidington was criticised by a raft of backbench Eurosceptics, including former cabinet ministers Liam Fox and John Redwood. Fox said it was a piece of “Juncker mail” – referring to the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker – and branded it a “dodgy dossier: the sequel”.
Redwood said: “Isn’t it an abuse of public money, an insult to electors, and do you realise it’s going to drive many more people to vote to leave?”
Several called for similar funds to be available to make the case for Brexit and pointed out ministers had promised the government would be “restrained in their use of public money” so that they did not compete with the campaigns on each side.
Crispin Blunt, Conservative chairman of the foreign affairs committee, said the mail-shot was both a waste of public money and caused “damage to the government’s reputation for straight-dealing on this issue”.
Nigel Evans, a Tory backbencher, accused the government of “spiv Robert Mugabe antics” that he would condemn in his role as an international election observer. Lidington said Evans should reflect on the fact that Zimbabwe elections have involved the “murder, maiming and intimidation of voters” and realise it was not his finest moment in the Commons.
Milband’s dire warning echoed those of David Cameron, Alan Johnson and other campaigners for the UK to stay in who have claimed Brexit would lead to years of uncertainty and danger.
Brexit campaigners have accused their opponents of exaggerating the consequences of leaving the EU and claimed the remain activists are running a “Project Fear” intent on scaring voters into staying in the EU.
Last month Boris Johnson, the London mayor and Conservative MP, urged people thinking of voting to leave to hold their nerve and “not be cowed by the gloomadon poppers” who thought the UK would not prosper on its own.
He went on to issue a plea for voters to “ignore the pessimists and the merchants of doom” who were arguing that the UK should fear being outside the EU – an argument made by Cameron on the grounds of economic uncertainty and national security.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 11th April 2016 22.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010