Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson faced off against each other on the referendum campaign trail yesterday, each firing accusations that the other had made up claims to support their respective positions on the Brexit question.
The two men came to blows over the question of whether Britain could forge a free trade deal with the European Union (EU) similar to that negotiated by Canada if the country were to vote to leave. Mr Cameron said Mr Johnson and his pro-Brexit colleagues were “literally making it up as they go along”; while Mr Johnson hit back “Project Fear is a load of old cobblers and basically a kind of millennium bug-style scare story frankly.”
This isn’t the first time during the referendum campaign that the two have traded blows. Mr Cameron shocked Westminster last month with the force of a thinly-veiled attack on Mr Johnson during a Commons grilling, just days after calling for a clean fight.
On Friday, Mr Johnson suggested that a similar deal to that won by Canada could be achieved by Britain, allowing the country to trade freely with EU member states while not being tied down to the bloc’s onerous regulations.
Speaking on the campaign trail at Felixstowe, dressed in builders’ garb, Mr Cameron rubbished the idea saying: “Canada is a country 4,000 miles away from the continent of Europe that does 10 per cent of its trade with the European Union. We are a country just 20-odd miles from the continent of Europe and we do 50 per cent of our trade with the European Union. So a Canada deal is not the right deal for us.
“Now today the leaders of the Leave campaign are saying they don’t really want a Canada deal at all, that they were not right about that.
“They are literally making it up as they go along.”
But speaking during his regular slot on LBC radio yesterday morning, Mr Johnson identified the warnings as yet more evidence of Mr Cameron’s determination to roll out ‘Project Fear,’ a strategy successful deployed in the Scottish independence referendum which involves frightening the British people into voting ‘remain’.
“We should do a British deal,” Mr Johnson said. “There are elements of the Canadian deal that show, in my view, that the Remain campaign are, as usual, trying to panic people.”
He added: “The thing that matters to me is getting the arguments out in front of the British people.
“I think that’s what they want, they want to hear a strong compelling story about what’s going wrong in Europe, why Project Fear is a load of old cobblers and basically a kind of millennium bug-style scare story frankly, I think.
“It does remind me very much – do you remember everybody running around and saying that when the millennium [bug strikes] planes will fall out of the sky, bank accounts will get wiped – it’s all wildly, wildly over-done.”
The spats between Mr Cameron and Mr Johnson run deeper than simply the referendum question, however. In a three hour debate on the subject held shortly after Mr Johnson announced his backing for the Leave campaign, Mr Cameron shocked Parliament by effectively accusing him of only taking that position to further his ambitions of one day holding the Prime Ministership.
Mr Johnson denied the claim, but party members have made it clear that they would welcome a leadership bid from the bombastic Mayor over that of Cameron’s favoured successor, Chancellor George Osborne, further raising tensions at the top of the party.