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Brexit campaign slams Cameron as Conservative rift widens
[LONDON] The rifts in Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party worsened as two leading Brexit campaigners accused him of breaking his promises on immigration and speculation mounts about a leadership challenge after the June 23 UK referendum on European Union membership.
Former London mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove said Mr Cameron, who is leading the drive for Britain to remain in the EU, should accept that his Conservative Party's election pledge to cut annual immigration to tens of thousands has failed. The migrant flow last year increased to more than 330,000.
"Voters were promised repeatedly at elections that net migration could be cut to tens of thousands," Mr Gove and Mr Johnson wrote in the letter, published in the Sunday Times newspaper.
"This promise is plainly not achievable as long as the UK is a member of the EU and the failure to keep it is corrosive of public trust in politics."
The Johnson-Gove letter is an escalation in Conservative defiance of Mr Cameron over the EU issue, and is a "clear break" from current policy, said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.
"We've not seen such a clear rupture of agreed government policy or such a push on collective cabinet responsibility towards breaking point as we have this weekend," Mr Bale said.
"It leaves Mr Cameron with a difficult decision to make if he wins the referendum - what does he do with those who broke the rules of engagement that were set."
With less than a month to go before the June 23 referendum, the debate has turned acrimonious, with parliament's Treasury select committee on Friday accusing both sides of misleading voters with "bogus claims."
After the publication of several reports by the Treasury focused on the potential economic shock of an exit, the Leave campaign is seeking to regain control of the debate by focusing on the impact of EU membership on migration.
The disquiet among rank-and-file Conservative lawmakers continues to grow. Lawmaker Andrew Bridgen told BBC 5 live that more than four dozen lawmakers from Mr Cameron's party were ready to back a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister.
"If there's a small 'remain' vote," then "I think there probably would be 50 colleagues who'd be very dissatisfied with the prime minister's performance," he said.
Former Tory defence secretary and Brexit campaigner Liam Fox told the BBC's "Andrew Marr Show" on Sunday that none of the Conservatives in parliament will be able to meet their election promises if the nation remains in the EU.
"I want control of our own lawmaking, I want control of our own money and I want control of our own borders," Mr Fox said.
Net migration to the UK rose to 333,000 in 2015, just below the record, and a 20,000 increase from 2014, the Office of National Statistics said on Thursday.
Mr Cameron remains committed to the immigration pledge. "The ambitions I've set out are the right ones," he told reporters traveling to a leaders' summit in Japan with him last week when asked if it wouldn't be easier to abandon the target.
"Of course the figures are disappointing," Mr Cameron said on Friday when asked about the statistics. The high numbers are partly the result of the UK economy performing better than those elsewhere in Europe, he said.
Meanwhile, the "Remain" campaign continued to focus on the potential impact of Brexit on Britain's economy, with a poll commissioned by the Observer newspaper showing nine out of 10 economists agree an exit would cause economic damage.
The Ipsos Mori online survey of over 600 economists showed 88 per cent of respondents said leaving the EU single market would damage Britain's growth prospects over the next five years. The survey was carried out from May 19 to May 27.
Speaking on the Marr show on Sunday, former Labour prime minister Tony Blair said the risks of leaving the bloc far outweighed any advantages.
"We will suffer an immediate shock to our economy, we will create years of uncertainty," Mr Blair said. "It's an enormous economic problem. Is that pain worth the gain and what is that gain that's so important?"