One of the Prime Minister’s aides complained about one of Britain’s biggest business leaders just hours before he was suspended for backing Brexit.
Nora Senior, President of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said she was contacted by a Downing Street aide after the organisation’s Director General, John Longworth, said Britain should leave the European Union.
Mr Longworth was suspended just hours later for breaching the organisation’s commitment to neutrality, and has since resigned so he can campaign freely, however two other BCC spokesman have been allowed to stay despite backing Remain.
It has also emerged that Daniel Korski, a special advisor to the Prime Minister, contacted Mr Longworth to criticise remarks he had made that were critical of the “Remain” campaign.
Downing Street had spent the weekend denying it had pressured the BCC into suspending Mr Longworth, but the latest revelations appear to contradict that claim.
Ms Senior told The Telegraph that a Downing Street official had phoned her on Friday morning asking her to clarify the BCC’s position on the referendum.
“I think there might have been one Number 10 official,” she said. “That would have been on Friday. All the media stuff started to come out and a lot of it had aligned John’s comments to the BCC. Really it was about getting clarity.”
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox responded to the revelations by saying: “The fact the Government would try to influence a group like the British Chambers of Commerce to sack someone as respectable as John Longworth is bad enough. If then attempts were made to cover this trail then it is an even more serious matter.”
Mr Longworth quit on Sunday evening, and in an interview the following morning refused to deny that the government had pressured the BCC into suspending him.
He told Sky News: “What I can say is that Government departments including No 10 from my experience contact business representatives all the time and express their views, sometimes strong views and strident views. In my experience it has never affected my judgement. I have always represented business views without fear or favour.”
Writing in The Times today, Mr Longworth also criticised the conduct of debate around the issue, calling it “unedifying”.
“So great has been the blizzard of hyperbole, particularly from the government, that I was fully expecting the agriculture minister to declare we will have a plague of locusts if we leave the EU, closely followed by the health minister predicting a plague of boils, and the Met Office promising rain for a hundred years.”
Conservative Party grandee David Davis has now submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Government, asking about Mr Longworth’s removal.
He said: “The last thing we want to see is a witch-hunt against business leaders brave and astute enough to make the argument that Britain would be better off economically if it regained the power to strike its own trade deals and was freed of the crippling burden of red tape, costing many billions a year, imposed by Brussels.”