UK Conservative Party dispute over immigration escalates

Public feuding raises questions about whether Cameron can unify his party no matter EU referendum result

LONDON – Conservative Party members seeking a British exit from the European Union have launched increasingly personal attacks on Prime Minister David Cameron over his leadership of the campaign to keep Britain within the 28-nation bloc.

The bruising tone of the Conservative Party feud is raising questions about whether Cameron can unify his party even if his side triumphs in the June 23 in-or-out vote on EU membership.

The most prominent attack came from former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who used a letter in the Sunday Times to say that Cameron’s tactics are eroding public trust.

A Cabinet minister who backs a British exit, known as Brexit, said party leaders are too rich to understand how unchecked immigration is hurting working-class Britons and another legislator said a vote of no-confidence in Cameron’s leadership is probable regardless of the referendum outcome.

Johnson and Gove, leaders of the “Leave” campaign, accused Cameron of misleading the public over Britain’s ability to check immigration if it remains in the EU. They said Cameron had broken his election pledge to reduce immigration because his hands were tied by the EU’s commitment to the free movement of people.

“Voters were promised repeatedly at elections that net immigration could be cut to the tens of thousands,” they said. “This promise is plainly not achievable as long as the UK is a member of the EU.”

Cameron’s office called the letter “a transparent attempt” to distract voters from the economic costs of leaving the EU.

Those favouring having Britain leave the EU have cited high immigration from other EU nations as the reason behind an increase in hospital waiting times, a shortage of places in state-supported schools, and a softening of wages because of intense competition for jobs. Britain’s solid economy and job opportunities have been an enormous magnet to citizens of some other EU nations.

Conservative Party legislator Andrew Bridgen told BBC Radio that a challenge to Cameron’s leadership is probable because of widespread anger about the prime minister’s conduct of the “Remain” campaign.

“I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to pull all the sides together and have a working majority going forward,” he said.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.