The Prime Minister David Cameron has ducked out of taking part in any head to head debates on the European Union (EU) referendum question, claiming he doesn’t want to create division within the Conservative Party.
His claim comes just a day after the backbench Conservative MP Steve Baker hit out against “personal attacks” and “petty tabloid smears” by Downing Street against Leave campaigners.
Mr Cameron is to take part in three televised events to make the case for Britain remaining within the EU, but not one of them will be a head to head debate with Leave campaigners, in which both party’s claims can be challenged and scrutinised.
“These town hall meetings, where you’re standing there on your own in front of a representative audience of the public, answering their very direct questions, that’s better than the slightly phoney atmosphere of debates with the pre-scripted lines and all the rest of it,” he claimed.
And he claimed he was ducking the straight fight in a bid to avoid disunity in his party, saying: “I want to prove the breadth of the campaign and I don’t want this to become a sort of Tory psycho-drama between me and Boris or me and Michael Gove.”
But Mr Baker, chairman of Brexit campaign group Conservatives for Britain has said he has found campaigning so far “breathtakingly disheartening” thanks to blue-on-blue attacks by the Prime Minister and his allies against leave campaigners.
“We always expected this to be a passionate contest,” he said, but continued: “What I did not expect was how quickly the Remain campaign would descend into insults, personal attacks and petty tabloid smears on key people.”
Citing both an attack on Boris Johnson by former Conservative Minister Lord Heseltine, and Chancellor George Osborne’s labelling of anyone who disagreed with his borderline apocalyptic economic forecasts as “economically illiterate,” Mr Baker added: “They give the impression that they are anxious they are losing the arguments.
“They appear stuck in a corner, lashing out at their opponents, not making the positive case for UK policy based on EU citizenship, the supremacy of EU law, a common EU trade policy and all the rest.”
Appearing on the BBC’s Today Program, he called on fellow Consevatives on both sides of the debate not to “follow a scorched earth policy,” adding “what I am essentially saying is – Queensberry rules.
‘So, a full frontal assault with due warning is fine, but the dagger in the heart, inserted from the back, through whispering in dark corridors is not okay.”