Thursday, May 26

Paused EU referendum debate to resume but with a more respectful tone



The EU referendum campaign is expected to resume tentatively on Sunday after hostilities were abruptly halted by the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox, with politicians on both sides of the debate appearing at events and on television ahead of the final few days before the vote.

With just days left before the referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union, MPs will gather in Westminster on Monday to remember the MP for Batley and Spen, who was killed outside her constituency surgery on Thursday.

Both campaigns were immediately suspended in the aftermath of the attack on Cox, and Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron made an unprecedented joint visit to her constituency on Friday to pay their respects.

But campaigners are acutely conscious that there is little time left to convince the public of their cause in the historic vote, and a poll released on Saturday morning showed the remain campaign had pulled ahead on the final weekend.

The UK-wide BMG telephone poll for the Herald put support for remain at 46% and backing for leave on 43%, with 11% undecided or unwilling to say. Excluding this group, 52% were in favour of staying in the EU, with 48% backing Brexit.

By using a series of questions to calculate the likely voting intention of people who say that they will vote but have yet to decide or do not want to say, BMG put the remain camp ahead on 53% compared to 47%.

The survey of 1,064 voters was carried out between 10-15 June, before the fatal shooting and stabbing of Cox.

Scores of events up and down the country had been cancelled since Thursday; but a full schedule of appearances by senior campaign figures on the political television shows on Sunday morning, including Corbyn and Michael Gove on the BBC’s Marr on Sunday, is planned to go ahead, though they are expected to strike a markedly less combative tone.

John Bercow, Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron address the media after laying flowers in memory of Labour MP Jo Cox, in Birstall. A senior spokesman for Vote Leave, which has cancelled a rally in Birmingham on Saturday but is expected to go ahead with an event in London on Sunday, said: “There’s a democratic process, but we have to reflect the mood of the country as well, so it’s striking that balance.”

He said it would be the wrong response to the attacks to make subjects such as immigration taboo. “You can’t start thinking that you don’t talk about some things: the central subject of the debate is the same,” he said, adding however that the tone might be less “brash” – with a planned event involving Boris Johnson on a hovercraft cancelled, for example.

Sadiq Khan and other senior politicians have pleaded for a change of tone in the EU referendum debate, as dozens more weekend campaign events were called off. The Labour London mayor said the whole country “just needs to pause and reflect” and make sure the debate is not marred by the “climate of hatred, of poison, of negativity, of cynicism” that has characterised it so far.

In a striking intervention on Friday, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, also warned of the dangers arising from the divisive language often deployed by politicians. “Exaggerations, and radicalisation of part of the language do not help foster an atmosphere of respect,” she said. “We know how important it is to draw limits: in choice of speech, in choice of argument, and also in choice of disparaging argument.”

Both party leaders, and their counterparts on the leave side, will have to tread extremely carefully to avoid accusations that they are using Cox’s death to further their political aims. Cameron and Corbyn have so far limited their political remarks to calls for democracy to be protected, but former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown became the first to make a link between to Cox’s commitment to a nation built on tolerance and a referendum campaign that has descended into exploitation of fears about immigrants.

Politicians have avoided drawing any public conclusions about the impact of the killing on the referendum outcome, but aides acknowledge it could affect the psychology of voters and are grappling with how best to proceed. There has been no suggestion of postponing the vote, because that would require new legislation.

Britain Stronger In Europe, the official remain campaign, said it was scrapping all events on Saturday, including rallies and street stalls. “Volunteers may choose to continue door-to-door leafleting in their own local areas, but the campaign nationally will not be doing so,” said its director, Will Straw.

Labour’s own remain camp also said it was suspending all activity until Monday, with sources saying they were reviewing all campaign material to make sure there were no personal attacks or inappropriate language.

Ukip called off a countrywide tour with its battlebus until at least Monday.

After months of bitter attacks between the rival sides, a senior remain source said campaigning would be less aggressive than planned for its final week. “This will change the tone of the rest of the campaign, there is no question of that,” he said. Some MPs also began to suggest that Cox might be honoured by a collective attempt to make politics less vitriolic.

Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon and a friend of his counterpart for Batley and Spen, said there was a need to “change the tone forever and reflect on what Jo stood for her whole life”. Anna Turley, the Labour MP for Redcar, said it was time for a more respectful tone in political discourse. Anna Soubry, a business minister, said it would be time to “reset the dial on political debate, comment and discourse” after the referendum.

Others, however, were concerned that political debate had become so toxic that it might take a long time to change. Mike Gapes, the Labour MP for Ilford who has been on the receiving end of abuse on social media, said: “Cameron and Corbyn have been showing leadership and maturity which is what is needed, but it’s got to be long term.

And I’m worried we’re still not going to get that from some people. We’ve seen the Ukip poster that is similar to Nazi propaganda and this debate has been very aggressive, and I’m concerned that not everyone is going to be mature.”