LONDON (Reuters) - Former prime minister John Major on Sunday accused the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union of fatuous and squalid claims on immigration and the cost of membership to dupe the public into voting out at this month’s referendum.
Exposing the deep rifts caused by the vote, Major urged Britons to question the facts coming from the “court jester” Boris Johnson, a champion of the Out campaign and himself a possible future leader of Major’s Conservative party.
“What they have done ... is feed out to the British people a whole galaxy of inaccurate and frankly untrue information,” he told the BBC, less than three weeks before the vote on June 23. “I think their campaign is verging on the squalid.”
Major was the last Conservative prime minister before current incumbent David Cameron, who wants Britain to remain in the EU.
His 1990-1997 premiership was plagued by disputes within his party over Europe, including Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the predecessor to the single currency, in 1992.
He said Leave campaigners were misleading voters by saying Britain paid 350 million pounds ($510 million) a week to Brussels, when two-thirds of that came back in subsidies and a rebate. Johnson dismissed his comments.
Out supporters have said the money could be better spent on schools and hospitals in Britain, but Major said “these promises of expenditure on the National Health Service or elsewhere are frankly fatuous”.
“If they can’t be straightforward and honest on a clear cut matter of fact like that upon what else can we trust them,” he said, in his most outspoken intervention on the campaign.
“I think this is a deceitful campaign and in terms of what they’re saying about immigration, a really depressing and awful campaign, they are misleading people to an extraordinary extent.”
World leaders and international organizations have cautioned Britain about the risks of leaving the bloc it joined in 1973, while the Bank of England has said Brexit could tip the economy into recession.
Despite the warnings, the Leave campaign has gained momentum in recent days by urging voters to “take back control” from Europe’s elites, in particular over immigration.
Figures published last week put net migration at 330,000 in 2015, of which a net 184,000 came from the EU, far above Cameron’s ambition in 2011 to cut numbers to tens of thousands.
The Leave campaign has said it could extend an Australian-style points-based system to EU citizens if Britain votes to leave the bloc.
Justice Minister Michael Gove, a prominent Leave campaigner, said the scale of immigration was depressing wages and putting a strain on public services.
“We would in due course bring it down to tens of thousands,” he said on ITV’s Peston on Sunday show.
Johnson also deployed the “taking back control” argument on Sunday, in his case over the money Britain sent to Brussels, its borders and other parts of its economic future.
“It’s a question of democracy,” he said. “I would like a situation where the government can fulfill its pledges to the people.”
Johnson said 350 million pounds was a “reasonable” figure to cite, arguing that although some of it was returned by the EU, it was not money Britain controlled.
Reporting by Paul Sandle and Kate Holton; Editing by Alison Williams and Stephen Powell