Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Business leaders back Blair warning on referendum 'chaos'

British political leaders have traded blows about the merits of an EU referendum, after the business community appeared to back Tony Blair's suggestion the referendum would cause “chaos" and discourage firms from investing in the UK.

In a speech on Tuesday (7 April), the former Labour prime minister said the threat of leaving the bloc would leave a “pall of unpredictability hanging over the British economy.”

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The intervention by Blair, who praised Labour leader Ed Miliband for having shown “real leadership on the EU” by refusing to match David Cameron’s referendum promise, is his first in a very tight election campaign.

David Cameron, the incumbent Tory PM, has promised to re-negotiate the UK’s membership terms followed by an ‘in/out’ referendum by the end of 2017 if his Conservative party wins re-election next month. The Labour party, Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, all oppose a referendum.

The pledge was dismissed by Blair as “a concession to party, a manoeuvre to access some of the Ukip vote, a sop to the rampant anti-Europe feeling of parts of the media.”

However, it is unclear whether the three-time election winner, who had high hopes of becoming the first president of the European Council when the post was created by the Lisbon treaty, still holds any sway over voters.

Blair’s role in leading the Iraq war, together with his controversial, but lucrative, business interests since leaving office have made him a divisive figure in both the Labour party and national debate.

Cameron dismissed Blair’s intervention as “extraordinary”, but comments by business leaders suggested that he had struck a chord.

"Businesses crave certainty and the threat of a British exit from the EU is already seeing investment decisions postponed,” said Lucy Thomas, the director of campaign group Business for New Europe. She added that a "Brexit" would lead to “certain sectors seeing very real threats to their continued business in the UK”.

Cameron’s referendum pledge, together with the increase in support for the UK independence party, Ukip, has made the UK’s EU status a more prominent issue on the campaign trail than in previous elections.

Labour is hoping that its anti-referendum stance will help pick up votes from a business community that is otherwise sceptical about its ability to manage the UK economy.

For her part, Katja Hall, the deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “the decision on holding a referendum is one for the government of the day and voters, but a significant majority of businesses are clear that they want to stay in a reformed European Union.

Elsewhere, Scottish Nationalist (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon hinted that her party would promise to hold a second referendum on independence should they win re-election in 2016.

The SNP has seen a surge in support despite Scottish voters narrowly choosing to remain part of the UK last September, and is poised to win at least 40 of the 59 constituencies in Scotland, traditionally a Labour stronghold.

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