David Cameron facing leadership contest as EU row escalates

Prime Minister David Cameron is facing the prospect of a leadership coup as the bitter Tory infighting over the EU referendum campaign spilled over into open civil war yesterday.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson were once political allies. Picture: PA
Prime Minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson were once political allies. Picture: PA

Prominent backbenchers have gone public over their anger with the Tory leader’s conduct at the helm of the Remain campaign so far, which has included suggestions that Brexit could increase the risk of Europe descending into war, and economic meltdown.

Commons select committee chairman Andrew Bridgen said yesterday that more than 50 MPs are ready to move against the Prime Minister, enough to trigger a confidence vote. Mid-Bedfordshire MP Nadine Dorries revealed she had already sent a letter to the chairman of the party’s backbench 1922 committee calling for a leadership contest, accusing the PM of telling “outright lies.”

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It came as one of his own ministers, Priti Patel, suggested Mr Cameron was too wealthy to understand the impact of immigration on poorer Brits, while Brexit heavyweights Boris Johnson and Michael Gove claimed the PM could not meet his pledge to cut immgration in the event of a Remain vote.

But the financial case for leaving the EU suffered a fresh blow as a new survey found almost nine in 10 leading economists believe Brexit would be damaging for the UK economy.

Breaking ranks to talk openly of a bid to topple the Prime Minister, Mr Bridgen warned anger in the Tory party was now so intense a challenge was “probably highly likely” as he warned the alternative was a “zombie parliament”.

Asked if a vote of no confidence against Mr Cameron would happen, the MP said: “It depends how the next few weeks go, but if true to form, I think there’s at least 50 colleagues who are dissatisfied with the way that the Prime Minister has put himself front and centre of a fairly outrageous Remain campaign.”

The MP insisted the situation was now so dire an emergency general election would be needed before Christmas to restore order.

“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.

Nadine Dorries, a long-term critic of Mr Cameron, branded the PM an “outright liar”.

The Mid-Bedfordshire MP said she had already sent a letter to the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, the usual route for urging a leadership contest.

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Ms Dorries added: “If the Remain campaign wins by a large majority, I’d say it would have to be 60-40, then David Cameron might just survive, but if Remain win by a narrow majority, or if Leave, as I certainly hope, will win, he’s toast within days.

“There are many issues about which David Cameron has told outright lies and because of that trust has gone in both him and George Osborne ... and it will be very hard for either of them to survive in the future.”

Pro-Leave cabinet minister Chris Grayling insisted the push to oust the PM did not have the 50 signatures needed to trigger a contest.

“I don’t think there are 50 colleagues gunning for the Prime Minister,” he went on.

“I can assure you that those people who fought to win their seats 12 months ago are definitely not gunning for a general election by Christmas.”

The in-fighting erupted after Mr Gove and Mr Johnson launched an unprecedented attack on the Prime Minister’s authority as they accused him of a having a “corrosive” impact on public trust in politicians because he had not lived up to promises to cut immigration.

The Office for National Statistics estimates 330,000 more people arrived in the UK in 2015 than left, despite the Government pledging to get the figure below 100,000.

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Number 10 said the Brexit attacks were an attempt to “distract” from a survey of 600 economists showing 88 per cent believed withdrawal would be damaging for the economy.

With 25 days to go until polling, Employment Minister Priti Patel also launched a pointed swipe against Remain campaign leaders Mr Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, even though she did not directly name them in a newspaper article.

“It’s shameful those leading the pro-EU campaign fail to care for those who do not have their advantages. Their narrow self-interest fails to pay due regard to the interests of the wider public,” she wrote.

Labour former prime minister Tony Blair warned the referendum will be the biggest decision the UK has taken since the Second World War and said the economic case for staying was now clear.

The Ipsos Mori poll suggested withdrawal from the EU would impact badly on Britain’s growth rates over the next five years. The survey also found that 82 per cent of the economists said Brexit would cut household incomes, and 61 per cent thought it would fuel unemployment.

Britain Stronger in Europe campaign director Will Straw said of the poll: “This is the final nail in the coffin of the leave campaign’s economic credibility. It is becoming clear that leaving is a risk we simply cannot afford to take.”

Ipsos Mori surveyed over 600 members of the Royal Economic Society, and the Society of Business Economists for the poll.

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Former Tory leader and prominent Leave campaigner Iain Duncan Smith insisted he would back Mr Cameron in any leadership challenge as he urged fellow Brexiters to concentrate on winning the referendum.