David Cameron has said he has four days left to make a better case to keep Britain in the EU as many voters remain confused about the referendum that will decide the fate of his leadership.
The prime minister invoked the memory of Winston Churchill as he delivered an impassioned plea for Britain to be fighters, not quitters, when it comes to the EU.
During a special edition of the BBC’s Question Time, he urged voters to listen to him and economic experts on the dangers of leaving the EU and argued that it would be “crazy” if people voted to leave in the belief that Turkey will join. The UK would not support Turkish accession in the next few years and it was unlikely to happen for decades, Cameron said.
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With the polls neck and neck, Cameron acknowledged that people have been finding the debate “perhaps quite confusing” and that the remain campaign needed to do more to convince them.
Key referendum dates “I’ve got four days to go,” he said. “I want to do better at getting this argument across.
“To me, it comes down to a simple point about the economy, but also what sort of country do we want to be? I want to be a country that does want to work with others. What I’ve learned in six years is there is no problem in the world that isn’t better addressed with your allies, your friends and your neighbours.”
He insisted that the referendum was not a vote on his leadership and that people should not vote to leave in order to punish him, but it is widely expected that Cameron would not stay for long in Downing Street if there were an out vote.
Throughout the 45-minute session, Cameron was given a hard time by the audience over his failures to bring down immigration as he promised. At one point, he was accused by an audience member of being a “21st-century Neville Chamberlain, waving a piece of paper in the air [and] saying to the public: ‘This is what I have, I have this prize, but a dictatorship in Europe can overrule it’”.
David Cameron urged voters to listen to experts on the consequences of a Brexit vote in a BBC Question Time special. The prime minister appeared shaken and emotional as he replied, referencing Chamberlain’s wartime successor, Winston Churchill, saying: “I don’t think Britain at the end is a quitter, I think we stay and we fight.
“At my office, I sit two yards away from the cabinet room where Winston Churchill decided in May 1940 to fight on against Hitler, the greatest decision that anyone has ever made in our country.
“Now he didn’t want to be alone; he wanted to be fighting with the French and the Poles, but he didn’t quit, he didn’t quit on Europe, he didn’t quit on European democracy, he didn’t quit on European freedom. We want to fight for those things today. You can’t fight if you are not in the room. Britain doesn’t quit, we fight, and that is how we win.”
The prime minister then sought to calm questions about immigration by hinting that he could seek future reform of free movement rules in Europe.
Cameron also made reference to Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was killed on Thursday, saying he wanted to make sure that the debate did not descend into “intolerance, hatred and division”. Over the past 24 hours, he has sought to frame a clear choice in the EU debate between a tolerant Britain of Cox and an intolerant Britain of the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, that “divides rather than unites”.
The campaign has now fully resumed after a two-day truce prompted by the death of Cox. Despite calls for a more respectful tone, hostilities flared up again between the two sides over the weekend.
Leave campaigners are furious that the remain camp has sought to emphasise the pro-EU views of Cox.
Andrew Murrison, a Conservative MP and former defence minister, said in a tweet that he later deleted: “Remain side spinning Jo Cox murder for partisan advantage in #EUReferendum shameful.”
On the other side, a number of senior pro-EU politicians have argued that rhetoric from the Brexit campaign has gone too far in whipping up anti-immigrant feeling. As MPs prepared to honour Cox in the House of Commons on Monday, Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP and one of her close friends, wrote in the Guardian: “The hatred that killed Jo, the poison that has seeped into our politics in recent years, with increasing venom in the past weeks and months, must end.
“There are those who say we must ‘take our country’ back, who castigate those on one side of an argument as an ‘elite’, in the pay of an establishment, in it for themselves and detached from the real world. Those people have to realise that their aggressive words and dangerous rhetoric have consequences. If you try to light a fuse, you can’t be surprised when it catches.”
Others have directed their criticism at Farage’s poster showing a snaking queue of non-white migrants, with the slogan “Breaking Point” and a plea to leave the EU.
The message of the poster also triggered a defection from leave to remain, as the former Conservative chairman Sayeeda Warsi told the Times that she could not continue to support the Brexit campaign when it was spreading “hate and xenophobia”.
The chancellor, George Osborne, said the poster was “disgusting and vile” with echoes of 1930s propaganda, while the former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper called on Vote Leave to do more to condemn the poster and withdraw its own advert about the threat of millions of Turkish people potentially moving to the UK. Cameron described the former as “wrong”.
Farage was defiant in the face of the criticism, saying he was a “victim of hate” and claiming that the row might not have blown up were it not for the killing of Cox.
The Ukip leader also became the first politician to voice the opinion that Cox’s death may have cost the leave campaign some momentum after polls over the weekend suggested that the campaigns are once again tied.
As tensions ran high, Vote Leave appeared keen to tone down its rhetoric on immigration and took several opportunities to distance itself further from the Ukip poster. The justice secretary, Michael Gove, a leading Brexit campaigner, said the poster made him shudder, while the Labour MP John Mann said it was “unhelpful, inaccurate and irrelevant” and should be withdrawn.
At a rally in London, the former London mayor Boris Johnson spoke of his commitment to an amnesty for illegal immigrants who entered the country more than 12 years ago in an apparent attempt to detoxify the campaign’s image.
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”.
Vote Leave also sought to highlight controversial remarks about immigration made by the remain camp, including Cameron’s reference to a “swarm” of migrants and the description by the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, of migrants as “marauding”.
Earlier, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said he blamed “several years of endless newspaper headlines” for the anti-immigration feeling in large parts of the country and argued there could not be a limit on numbers because of EU free movement rules.
With the vote fast approaching, the leave campaign has little choice but to continue stressing its point that exiting the EU would allow the UK to take back control of its borders. Immigration is regarded as leave’s strongest suit, while remain will want to turn the emphasis of the final few days back on to the economy.
After the Question Time debate, Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of Vote Leave, said: “David Cameron repeatedly refused to say that he would veto Turkey joining the EU … Cameron had no answers to people’s legitimate concerns on immigration tonight and failed to set out how he would meet his manifesto pledge to bring the numbers back down to the tens of thousands, while remaining in the EU. He had no answer on how we would fund the NHS to cope with higher levels of immigration.”
Vote Leave has focused heavily on immigration for several weeks, with a particular emphasis on the impact on the health service. That element of its campaign is now coming under attack from the British Medical Association, with the chair of its council, Dr Mark Porter, accusing leave campaigners of making “farcical and fatuous claims”.
Porter will use his keynote speech at the group’s annual representative meeting on Monday to argue that the NHS would not exist in the form it did without the support of tens of thousands of workers from overseas. He will say that the BMA has not told its members how to vote.
“Where none of us can be neutral, however, is in condemning the farcical and fatuous claims that have been a by-product of the political campaigns. We’ve warned before about politicians playing games with the health service. Here we see game playing on a truly continental scale,” he is expected to say.
“That promise of billions of pounds of extra NHS funding if we leave the European Union, it’s beyond irresponsible.”
He will say that promise assumes the British economy will not be hit by Brexit and is therefore based on “fantasy figures”.