David Cameron criss-crossed the country on Wednesday in a final effort to warn Britain’s voters against rejecting the EU in the historic poll, that will also be read as a referendum on his premiership.
Cameron was joined last night by the former prime ministers Gordon Brown and Sir John Major, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, and the Green MP Caroline Lucas, in a final display of cross-party unity as the polls pointed to a close finish.
Appearing in his shirt sleeves, and with his voice breaking at times, the prime minister issued an impassioned personal plea to the public to reject the “untruths” of the leave campaign. He pleaded for voters to “put jobs first, put the economy first”.
The prime minister will vote in his constituency on Thursday morning, before returning to Downing Street to watch the results come in overnight. He is expected to make a statement before the financial markets open on Friday morning, once the result emerges, to reassure the City whose nervousness has been betrayed by volatility in the pound over the past few days.
One late poll - conducted by ComRes for ITV and the Daily Mail, and including voters in Northern Ireland - suggested the remain campaign may have won over more voters as polling day approached, with remain standing at 48%, against 42% for leave, with 11% still undecided. But most polls suggested the result was too close to call.
A No 10 insider insisted the mood was “buoyant” last night, despite concerns that poor weather could affect the turnout that remain campaigners are looking for to secure victory. Labour’s grassroots supporters are expected to be essential to getting the vote out on Thursday.
A Vote Leave source insisted that the group had a strong and targeted ground operation, arguing that his opponents were visible but not behaving in a strategic way.
Brown’s appearance in Birmingham last night alongside the man whose victory at the 2010 general election ejected him from Downing Street, was the last in the unlikely political alliances that have characterised this hard-fought campaign. The former Labour leader referred to Jo Cox, the MP murdered on 16 June, and criticised the tone of the referendum debate, in a speech which was greeted with cheers and whoops from a mixed audience of mainly Lib Dem, Tory and Labour activists.
“This is not the Britain I know, this is not the Britain I love. The Britain I know is better than the Britain of these debates, of insults, of posters,” he said. “The Britain I know is a Britain of Jo Cox. The Britain where people are tolerant – and not prejudiced and where people hate.”
The killing of Cox last week led to an abrupt pause in the bitter campaign, and came just after Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, unveiled a van poster showing a line of refugees with the slogan Breaking Point.
Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who held his own, pro-EU, rally in London on Wednesday, said campaigners on both sides had been brought up short by the terrible events of last Thursday. “I think the debate has become more rational over the past dew days, following the correct suspension of campaigning after Jo Cox’s appalling killing,” he told the Guardian.
Corbyn has sought to make a distinctive Labour argument for remaining in the EU, and was joined at his party’s event by senior colleagues including the London mayor, Sadiq Khan. Khan urged an enthusiastic crowd of Labour activists at the rally to go out and convince their friends, family and neighbours to vote remain.
Cameron’s rally at the University of Birmingham followed a punishing referendum campaign, which has split the ruling party and exposed damaging rifts over the impact of immigration from EU countries. The prime minister is already facing calls from some Tory donors and MPs to stand down regardless of whether Britain votes to remain or leave the EU.
The event was meant to emphasise the remain campaign’s broad cross-party appeal. It also included the former trade union leader Brendan Barber, the former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown, and business leaders.
But the divide within the Conservative party was laid bare once again in the final day of campaigning, with Cameron using his speech at the rally to attack Michael Gove for comparing the experts who have warned against Brexit to Nazis. “That is the extent to which they have lost it,” he said.
Gove, the justice secretary, who supports Brexit, had earlier apologised – after comparing those saying a leave decision would cause recession to scientists paid by Hitler to devise the scientific results that were wanted by the state.
“We have to be careful about historical comparisons, but Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong and his theories were denounced, and one of the reasons, of course, he was denounced was because he was Jewish,” Gove said. “They got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say that he was wrong and Einstein said, ‘look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough’.” He later said that his remarks had been “clumsy and inappropriate”.
The bitter public spat between the two longstanding political allies underlined the battle facing Cameron as he seeks to reunite his party on Friday. Cameron has insisted that he will stay on whatever the result and press ahead with the priorities announced in last month’s Queen’s speech, including prison reform and measures to boost children’s life chances. But few at Westminster believe he could survive for long if the British public back Brexit.
Gove insisted that once the public’s verdict was in, Cameron would be able to draw on “a fund of goodwill, and a reservoir of civility, and a sense of common purpose, that unites Conservatives” – assets that have at times appeared in short supply in recent weeks.
The justice secretary did not rule out the idea that he could be shifted to another role in a post-referendum reshuffle. “I enjoy doing the job that I do at the moment, I think it’s a privilege to do it, I’d like to carry on doing it, but it’s up to the prime minister whether he keeps me in that job or finds someone better,” he said.
Another of the prime minister’s closest political friends, the former mayor of London Boris Johnson, criss-crossed the country on Wednesday, beginning at 4am at Billingsgate fish market in east London and urging the public to back Brexit. From Billingsgate, Johnson zig-zagged from Malden in Essex to Ashby in the east Midlands, and from Wolverhampton in the west Midlands by car and plane.
Speaking at a campaign walkabout in Ashby, Johnson said: “Huge decisions about our own country are being made by official who most people in Ashby don’t know. Democracy is vital but it only works when you can kick the buggers out when they make a mistake. If we vote to leave we can take back control of our democracy and our immigration policy.”
Johnson, fuelled by coffee, was then collected from the city’s race course by helicopter where he went on to Selby, Darlington and then off to Scotland, blitzing regional media rounds at each location, and meeting supporters.
Meanwhile Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, for whom Thursday’s poll will be the culmination of a decades-long fight to sever Britain’s ties with the rest of Europe, portrayed the campaign as the “people against the establishment” and urged non-voters to give the political class a shock. However, he pulled out of his final chance to make a public pitch on a Channel 4 television debate, citing family reasons.
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