Tragedy and Uncertainty in Britain’s Vote on Europe
LONDON—The horrific murder of Jo Cox, a 41-year-old Labour member of parliament and mother of two, by a fanatical Euroskeptic last Thursday has shocked Britain and made the outcome of the referendum on membership of the EU even more unpredictable than it already was. Immediately after the murder, campaigning was suspended. But as campaigning resumes, the big question is whether the murder will effect the outcome — and if so, how.
In the weeks before the murder, the leave campaign had opened up a significant lead in the opinion polls. The tone of the debate had become increasingly aggressive as the remain campaign made apocalyptic warnings about the effect of leaving on the British economy while the leave campaign focused on the issue of immigration. In particular, controversy centered on a poster put out by UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who has been sidelined by the official Vote Leave campaign but is part of the alternative “grassroots” leave.eu campaign. The poster showed a line of people, apparently refugees, under the headline “Breaking Point.” Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who is campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU and has threatened to introduce an emergency budget in the case of a vote to leave, said it had echoes of 1930s propaganda.
The murder of Cox prompted many to question whether the political debate in Britain had become too aggressive, and as campaigning resumed on Sunday, there was a new conciliatory mood. On the Andrew Marr television show on Sunday morning, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove — who is a close friend of Prime Minister David Cameron but also one of the leading figures in the leave campaign — prefaced almost every answer by emphasizing how much he respected his opponents on the remain side. He also said he had “shuddered” when he first saw the “Breaking Point” poster. But whether this new civilized tone will last until Thursday remains to be seen.
It is also difficult to know whether the murder might lead some British people who were undecided or planning to vote to leave to vote instead to remain. But there are already some signs of a shift. On Monday morning, Baroness Warsi, a senior Conservative member of the House of Lords, announced she was quitting the leave campaign (though she said it was the Farage poster rather than the murder of Cox that prompted her change of heart). “Are we prepared to tell lies, to spread hate and xenophobia just to win a campaign?” she asked. “For me that’s a step too far.” The first polls carried out since the murder also show remain recovering and, in some cases, in the lead.
Meanwhile Farage accused David Cameron — who began an op-ed published on Sunday by invoking the memory of Cox — of trying to exploit the murder to help win the referendum. If it does start to look as if the murder will affect the outcome, let alone if it turns out to be decisive, one can expect at least some Euroskeptics to question its legitimacy. Far from helping the two sides to reconcile, that could lead an even more polarized country after the referendum on June 23.
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