Eric Pickles says Vote Leave campaign should be denied lead status


Sir , the former Conservative cabinet minister, has called for the anti-EU group Vote Leave to be denied the right to play a leading role in the referendum, after it pledged to run a “nasty” campaign against opponents.

In a letter to the Electoral Commission, Pickles said he believed Vote Leave had disqualified itself by helping students to gain entry to the CBI annual conference under false pretences, where they .

“I believe the actions of Vote Leave in disrupting the CBI conference and declaring a strategy of intimidation and protest disqualify Vote Leave from being a designated lead campaigner in the forthcoming EU referendum campaign,” Pickles wrote to the the commission’s chief executive, Claire Bassett.

Vote Leave dismissed the Pickles letter. A spokesman for the group said: “No 10 is panicking. The BSE [Britain Stronger in Europe] campaign has flopped and needs relaunching. The PM’s letter to the EU has bombed so now they are rolling out former ministers to deflect for their own failure.

“The establishment does well out of the status quo. That’s why they are trying to stop campaigns like ours that want to change things for the benefit of everyone.”

Vote Leave to allow two student protesters to gain entry to the CBI conference this week. Peter Lyon and Phil Sheppard unfurled a banner saying “CBI: Voice of Brussels” and chanted the same words, prompting the prime minister to mock them for foolish behaviour as they were led away by security guards.

Dominic Cummings, the former special adviser to Michael Gove who serves as campaign director of Vote Leave, launched a strong defence of his tactics and said companies that campaigned to stay in the EU were in his crosshairs. Cummings : “You think it is nasty? You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The Telegraph quoted Cummings as saying: “These guys have failed the country, they are going to be under the magnifying glass. Tough ****. We are going to be tough about exposing the failure of the establishment – they can bleat that it is nasty because they don’t like scrutiny. It is going to be tough.”

Vote Leave hopes to pip the rival Leave.EU group to be designated by the Electoral Commission as the lead anti-EU campaign in the referendum.

The commission cannot designate lead campaigns for the leave and remain sides until the parliamentary bill introducing the referendumis made law. Lead status entitles the groups to millions of pounds in public funds and airtime on television.

Pickles said the tactics by Cummings and his remarks to the Telegraph showed he had fallen foul of guidelines which suggest campaigners should show respect to their opponents.

He saidin his letter: “Surely an open campaign of nasty tactics against other campaigners must be taken into consideration and runs counter to your organisation’s stated objectives to ensure that the referendum should be well-run and produce results that are accepted.”

Pickles cited guidance on the commission stating that a campaign’s interaction with opponents is important in assessing its suitability to be a lead campaign. The website says that one factor in the commission’s consideration process is “how the applicant intends to engage with other campaigners”.

Will Straw, executive director of Britain Stronger in , said: “Vote Leave have now made it perfectly clear that they intend to run ‘Project Nasty’. Sir Eric is absolutely right to call them out on their campaign’s tactics … Intimidating letters, threats to disrupt company AGMs, and co-opting students to do their dirty work – theses aren’t the tactics of a campaign with the confidence that it is winning the big arguments. These are the desperate acts of a side that has seen its case fall apart.”

The Pickles letter highlighted bitter relations between the two Leave camps. Arron Banks, the head of Leave.EU, said: “This goes against the grain totally and it pains me to say this but on this occasion Sir Eric Pickles is right. If we are to gain the trust of the British people in this campaign then provocative stunts and schoolboy politics is not the answer. This is a serious debate about a very serious matter and we now have to conduct ourselves accordingly; stating that this is going to ‘get nasty’ helps no one.”

Leave.EU has faced criticism itself. It deleted a tweet that sought to use Remembrance Sunday to . The tweet, which featured a picture of a Chelsea Pensioner tending the poppies outside the Tower of London last year, said: “Freedom and democracy. Let’s not give up values for which our ancestors paid the ultimate sacrifice. #LeaveEU.”

Andy Wigmore, the head of communications for the group, which has close links to Ukip, tweeted: “On behalf of we apologise unreservedly this was not intended to offend.”