Boris Johnson has sought to change the rhetoric about immigration in the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, calling for an amnesty for migrants who entered the UK illegally more than 12 years ago.
The former London mayor made the call at a rally in London on Sunday, as campaigners for Brexit face accusations that the debate about immigration had become too toxic in the heat of the referendum campaign.
Johnson’s words on immigration prompted a handful of boos and shouts of “No” from people in the crowd, but he said the amnesty would help those trapped and “unable to contribute to this economy, unable to pay taxes, unable to take proper part in society”.
He argued such a scheme could form part of a wider immigration policy which would help stop extremism based on the subject.
“It is the humane thing to do, it is the economically rational thing to do, and it is taking back control of a system that is, at the moment, completely out of control,” Johnson argued. “If we take back control of our immigration system with an Australian-style points-based system we will be dealing fairly and justly with every part of the world, and we will be neutralising people in this country and across Europe who wish to play politics with immigration, and who are opposed to immigration. That is the way forward, to neutralise the extremists.”
His comments appear to be an attempt to detoxify the issue of immigration for the leave campaign, after Ukip unveiled a poster showing a queue of migrants with the slogan “Breaking point” and a plea to leave the EU.
Leave will not shy away from the topic of immigration entirely though, as it is regarded as the campaign’s strongest subject in contrast to remain’s emphasis on the economy.
On Sunday Gisela Stuart, the Labour chair of Vote Leave, challenged David Cameron to say he would use his veto to stop Turkey entering the EU when he faces a BBC Question Time audience at 6.45pm.
“Both Jeremy Corbyn and George Osborne today said that we should accept having no control over free movement of people into the UK from the EU – we disagree. And senior figures in the In campaign have said that they agree with us.
“‘Government policy and EU policy is to have five more countries join the EU – including Turkey. It’s also their plan to open up visa-free travel from Turkey after our referendum this year. If we stay in the EU then this is bound over time to lead to further movement of people into the UK. Our communities and public services are already under pressure. To make this worse would be a mistake and the only vote we get on this is on Thursday.
“David Cameron should make clear tonight: will he use his veto to stop Turkey joining the EU? Will he stop sending taxpayers’ money to Turkey to help them join the EU? Will he commit to stopping Turkish citizens being given visa-free access to the UK?”
The issue has been further complicated by the killing of the Labour MP Jo Cox, with some commentators and politicians on the remain side, including Gordon Brown, accusing some Brexit campaigners of stirring up hatred against immigrants.
With four days to go before the vote, the leave campaign has strongly distanced itself from Ukip and sought to highlight controversial remarks about immigration made by the remain camp, including Cameron’s reference to a “swarm” of migrants and Philip Hammond’s description of them as “marauding”.
Both Michael Gove, the justice secretary, and Chris Grayling, the leader of the Commons, used TV appearances on Sunday to attack Farage over the poster, with Gove saying it had made him shudder.
Farage, however, defended it, saying he was himself a victim of hatred and claiming the row might not have blown up if it were not for the death of Cox.
He told Sky News: “I wish an innocent member of parliament hadn’t been gunned down on the street … That’s the point, and frankly had that not happened, I don’t think we would have had the kind of row that we’ve had over it.”
While Vote Leave appeared to be trying to calm the debate down, its efforts were undermined by Andrew Murrison, a Tory MP and former defence minister, who tweeted: “Remain side spinning Jo Cox murder for partisan advantage in #EUReferendum shameful.”
Andrew Lilico, chairman of the Economists for Britain group, also attracted controversy by tweeting: “If the future destiny of the west can be decided by a sympathy vote for a murdered woman, what does that say about the virtue of democracy?” He later deleted the remarks.
Johnson made no direct reference to Cox’s death as he appeared at the London rally. The only speaker who did was the Labour MP Kate Hoey, who called it “an attack on democracy and on all of us”.
However, there was little sign at the event of a less divisive tone, with speeches encouraging boos and jeers against the EU, CBI and IMF, and individuals including Jean-Claude Juncker and Peter Mandelson.
The remain camp has also not held back from attacking leading Brexit campaigners. George Osborne said the Ukip “Breaking point” poster was “disgusting and vile”, with echoes of 1930s propaganda.
Yvette Cooper, the former shadow home secretary, told ITV’s Peston on Sunday that Vote Leave should do more to condemn the poster.
“Nigel Farage is still trying to whip up fear and hatred towards refugees who are fleeing from conflict,” she said. “I think it was extremely ill-judged of him to describe himself as a victim today.
“And I was also really disappointed that neither Steve Hilton [a former adviser to David Cameron] nor, I think actually, Michael Gove, has gone far enough … in condemning that poster, and I also think the rest of the leave campaign should withdraw their posters on Turkey as well. We all of us have a responsibility not to pit each other against each other in this.”
Gove defended the leave campaign’s tone on immigration and the decision to discuss the birthrate of countries such as Turkey during the debate. “It is important when we are talking about migration to look at numbers, especially because the birthrate [in Turkey] is so high,” he said.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, was also asked about the issue during the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, saying he blamed “several years of endless newspaper headlines” for the anti-immigration feeling in large parts of the country.
Asked whether Labour would want to set an upper limit on the number of migrants coming to Britain from the EU, he said: “I don’t think you can have one.”
His words may well disappoint some in the remain campaign who have argued that changes could be made to EU rules.
Corbyn played down suggestions of a split with his deputy, Tom Watson, who said last week that EU free movement rules must change. “Tom and I had a chat about this: what we are agreed on is there has to be a greater equality of working conditions … Workers working alongside each other should have the same rights. They don’t,” he said.
This article was written by Rajeev Syal, Peter Walker and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Sunday 19th June 2016 12.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010