Labour’s Sadiq Khan and the Tories’ Ruth Davidson teamed up to launch a cross-party attack on the Vote Leave figurehead, Boris Johnson, at Wembley on Tuesday night, as the campaigns clashed for the final time in the EU referendum battle.
With just a day of campaigning to go before voters go to the polls, the mayor of London accused his predecessor of unleashing “project hate” in a desperate bid to win over voters by stirring up fears about immigration.
Khan also said his opponents had been scaremongering with a “big fat lie” over whether Turkey would soon join the EU.
In front of an audience of 6,000 gathered for the BBC’s biggest referendum event, Johnson hit back by saying Khan had recently claimed that Labour needed to listen to people’s concerns on immigration and not simply dismiss them as prejudice.
He also accused his opponents of wasting no time in trying to stoke people’s worries about life outside the EU. “They told us they were going to have a positive and patriotic case, but they are back to project fear within minutes of this debate,” he said.
Johnson also faced a blue-on-blue grilling from Davidson, his party’s leader in Scotland, whose strong performance attracted praise from remain supporters across the political spectrum, and even from within the leave campaign.
Davidson said it was not good enough that when “asked if people were going to lose jobs, Johnson said they might or they might not”.
She also accused her other Tory opponent in the debate, Andrea Leadsom, of telling a “blatant untruth” about how many laws were made in Brussels.
She echoed the prime minister as she told people not to vote leave unless they were 100% sure because there was no going back.
She joined Khan in piling into her opponents on immigration, saying Brexit was not a silver bullet and that even Johnson had called for an “amnesty for illegal immigrants, never mind the legal ones”. She said Turkey “is not going to happen, it is simply not on the cards”.
In a blow to the remain camp, however, Ilnur Çevik, chief adviser to Turkey’s president Recep Tayipp Erdoğan, told Newsnight that David Cameron had been a chief supporter of the country’s accession, and his comments in the referendum made them feel that he was “taking us for a ride”.
Despite being a determined leave campaigner, the columnist and Conservative Home founder, Tim Montgomerie, took to Twitter to claim that if Davidson was an MP rather than an MSP, then she would be a “hot tip to be next Tory leader”.
The former Labour spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, said Scotland had always “produced good women”, naming Davidson; her Labour counterpart, Kezia Dugdale; the country’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon; and his own mother.
Amina Lone, a Labour campaigner and former candidate for MP who is working for Britain Stronger in Europe, said: “I love Ruth. Just love her. She is such a positive role model for women. She is down to earth, personable, funny, intelligent and has fire in her belly. What’s not to like?”
The night was marked by other emotional pleas as both sides strove to win support with the polls suggesting the race is still too close to call.
Johnson said Thursday could be “our country’s independence day”, saying that the battle was between one side that was “speaking nothing but fear and those of us with hope”.
Khan raised his voice to claim: “We stay and fight, we don’t quit. Why are you a quitter?”
The London mayor also faced a red-on-red battle with Gisela Stuart, who said she was an immigrant but argued that Britain’s policy discriminated against people from outside Europe.
She and Khan also disagreed on workers’ rights. Stuart said she first joined a union 45 years ago, but that the euro was a “broken project” and the EU could not protect jobs.
Khan hit back: “Gisela, you are so wrong. Every time you and I have been in a lobby voting for workers’ rights they [the Conservatives] have been on another side.”
The third remain campaigner on the panel, the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, criticised leave campaigners for throwing around the words “red tape”.
“What they are really talking about is getting rid of vital rights at work,” she said.
Leadsom argued that British governments had led the way on workers’ rights.
Both sides referenced their families, with Leadsom stressing her role as a mother, and Stuart said the referendum was about “my children’s future and grandchildren’s future”.
Davidson said: “I do just have to remind people that there are mums and dads and grans and grandads on this side as well.”
After the debate, the tetchy atmosphere was highlighted in a series of exchanges between senior figures, with the leave campaign’s Michael Gove confronting his counterpart Will Straw, who also went toe to toe with Dominic Raab.
Straw accused Raab of having “a slogan, but no plan” for controlling immigration and managing Britain’s economy post-Brexit. Raab retorted: “We’re not the government, but the truth is you would get back control.”
Leave campaigners also described a tweet by Lord Alan Sugar as outrageous after he said it was ironic that Stuart, who immigrated from Germany, was telling us to control immigration.
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