Activists hit the streets yesterday for the first official day of campaigning over Britain’s “Brexit” referendum, firing the starting pistol on a tense 10-week battle over the country’s future in Europe.
Opinion polls suggest the public is evenly split ahead of the June 23 vote, which could bring down Prime Minister David Cameron and plunge one of the world’s leading economies into uncertainty.
The referendum - Britons’ first direct say on the divisive issue of Europe in 41 years - is also being nervously watched in Washington and Brussels, where a British exit would add to a long list of EU crises.
“We absolutely think we’re going to win it,” Peter Reeve, a spokesman for the UK Independence Party (Ukip), said as he campaigned in Peterborough - a market town in eastern England where an influx of East European workers has angered many locals.
The first day of the official referendum campaign saw the two sides sparring over the potential impact of British withdrawal from the EU on the NHS.
The Remain and Leave camps rolled out their big guns, with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and former chancellor Lord (Alistair) Darling lining up to do battle ahead of the June 23 vote.
The Vote Leave campaign unveiled a poster claiming that the UK is sending £350mn a week to the EU, which could otherwise be spent on the NHS.
But the claim was savaged as “spurious and outrageously misleading” by health unions, who said cash shortages in the health service were made in Westminster not Brussels, while Downing Street insisted that Brexit would mean “less money for the NHS”.
Meanwhile, Ukip leader Nigel Farage challenged David Cameron to a one-on-one debate on the claims contained in a leaflet sent out to households around the country, setting out the government case for continued EU membership.
The Vote Leave organisation, backed by Johnson and Cabinet heavyweight Gove, moved the NHS centre stage in the campaign as it claimed a large chunk of the UK’s £10.6bn net contribution to Brussels could be diverted to medical care if Britain quits the EU.
Unveiling the campaign’s first billboard ad, Labour MP Graham Stringer said: “ Our NHS is struggling to cope with rising demand and needs the support that is currently siphoned off to Brussels.
“Instead of handing over £350 million a week to the EU we should spend our money on our priorities like the NHS.
“If we take back control of our borders, democracy and economy on June 23 we can ensure that the UK and our health service prospers for this and future generations.”
But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady responded: “It’s not up to the Leave campaign to set NHS funding. The reality is that Brexit would plunge the NHS into a staffing crisis, which could lead to the longest hospital waiting lists we’ve ever known. And with experts warning that Brexit would hit Britain’s economy, the consequences for NHS funding would be dire.”
And Unite national officer for health Barrie Brown said: “It is spurious and outrageously misleading to blame the EU for problems that are home-grown and made worse by the Tory government.
Prime Minister David Cameron makes campaign calls for Britain Stronger in Europe, the official ‘Remain’ campaign organisation for the forthcoming EU referendum, in London yesterday. Also seen is former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.
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