March 7, 2016 / 9:30 AM / a year ago

UK business chief quits, accuses PM Cameron of EU exit 'hyperbole'

British Chambers of Commerce director general John Longworth speaks at their annual meeting in central London February 10, 2015.Stefan Wermuth

LONDON (Reuters) - The head of a prominent British business lobbying group has quit his post after speaking in favor of Britain's exit from the European Union and has accused Prime Minister David Cameron of trying to scare voters into supporting continued EU membership.

British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) director general, John Longworth, resigned late on Sunday after he breached the group's neutral stance on the in-out referendum to be held on June 23 by saying that the EU was incapable of meaningful reform and Britain could have a bright economic future outside the bloc.

After his resignation was announced, Longworth criticized Cameron, who argues that Britain's national security and economic stability would be at risk if it votes to leave the 28-nation EU, though his ruling Conservative Party is deeply split.

"It is highly irresponsible of the government of the country to be peddling hyperbole," Longworth told the Daily Telegraph newspaper in an interview published on Monday.

"If the government keeps peddling the line that it will be a disaster if we leave, which it actually won't be, they are going to put the country in a position where it will be damaged if we do."

Longworth's comments mark the latest spat in what is becoming an increasingly divisive battle over Britain's future in the EU. Polls show public opinion is finely balanced and the issue has split senior members of Cameron's cabinet, pitting him against popular London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Announcing Longworth's resignation, BCC president Nora Senior said his personal views on the referendum were "likely to create confusion regarding the BCC's neutral stance".

Cameron's office rejected media reports which cited people close to Longworth as saying that it had pressured the BCC to remove him from his position.

"No pressure was applied," Cameron's spokeswoman said.

"OUT" CAMP FURIOUS

The BCC's Senior also said "no external factors" had been involved.

"No politician or interest group had any influence on the BCC board decision to suspend Mr Longworth. His subsequent resignation was agreed mutually between Mr Longworth and the BCC," she said.

Johnson, the 'Out' campaign's most high-profile backer, said on Sunday it was "scandalous" that Longworth had been forced to step aside for what he said was a "a passionate optimistic view" on Britain's future prospects outside the EU.

Conservative lawmaker and former defense secretary Liam Fox, who is also campaigning for 'Out', said it was inappropriate to use "the apparatus of the state" to put pressure on those expressing their personal views.

The BCC represents thousands of British businesses and its own research indicates a majority of them favor Britain remaining in the EU.

Prominent British companies such as BP and GlaxoSmithKline have cautioned that Britain's $2.9 trillion economy could face years of uncertain negotiations if voters chose to leave the EU. "Out" campaigners say such warnings are overblown.

Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Gareth Jones

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