22 Jun 2016

Brexit debate: Should UK stay or go?

5:42 pm on 22 June 2016

Leading campaigners in the British debate on staying or leaving the European Union have clashed in the biggest live television debate on the issue ahead of tomorrow's vote.

The two sides traded blows before an audience of 6000 people at the BBC's Great Debate at Wembley Arena in London.

The BBC debate between those wanting Britain to leave the EU and those wanting it to remain.

The BBC debate between those wanting Britain to leave the EU and those wanting it to remain took place two days before the vote. Photo: AFP

The debate featured almost two hours of questions on immigration, the economy and sovereignty ahead of the referendum on Thursday 23 June (UK time), when Britain will decide whether or not to leave the EU.

During the often spiky exchanges, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson repeatedly clashed with MP and former London mayor Boris Johnson and accused his 'leave' campaign of "lying".

Mr Johnson said the 'remain' camp "keep talking down our country".

He got a standing ovation from his supporters after his closing statement, in which he declared: "Thursday can be our country's independence day" if Britain voted to leave.

Ms Davidson, who gave the closing statement for Vote Remain, told the Wembley audience they had to be "100 percent sure" adding that there was "no going back on Friday morning".

Her side "refused to dismiss the experts" who all agreed that "Britain is better-off in [the EU]," she argued.

The debate, the biggest of its kind within the EU referendum campaign, represented a final chance for the two campaigns to get their points across.

There were heated exchanges throughout between Mr Johnson and London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Mr Khan accused his predecessor of changing his mind over the benefits of the EU to businesses.

Mr Johnson said the EU was holding back the UK's trading progress with the rest of the world.

Also on the panel for leaving were Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, who attacked the Brussels "gravy train", and Labour MP Gisela Stuart.

Those supporting the move out of the EU included Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom.

Those supporting the move out of the EU included Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom. Photo: AFP

Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O'Grady was also arguing to remain.

Trade and the economy

The first skirmishes were on trade and the economy.

Responding to the opening question from a small business owner, Ms Davidson said she knew people found the EU "frustrating and fussy", but said it provided "a level playing field" for small businesses. She said if the UK left, the rest of the EU would impose tariffs and taxes.

She read out previous quotes on job losses from key proponents of the leave camp, including Mr Johnson, who hit back by saying his opponents were "back to Project Fear".

He said it was extraordinary to suggest tariffs would be imposed on the UK, saying Germany would be insane to do so.

Ms Leadsom said the UK had led the way on workers' rights, not the EU.

"We do not need unelected, bureaucratic European leaders to tell us what our workers' rights can be."

But Ms O'Grady said EU's "red tape" argued against by those wanting to leave really meant they wanted to be "getting rid of workers' rights".


As the debate moved on to immigration, Mr Khan said those campaigning to leave - had not been "project fear", but "project hate".

Brandishing a Vote Leave leaflet, he accused the rival side of "lying" and "trying to scare people" by saying Turkey was set to join the EU.

Those arguing for Britain remaining in the EU included Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Frances O'Grady.

Those arguing for Britain remaining in the EU included Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Frances O'Grady. Photo: AFP

"Turkey isn't about to join," he said.

Ms Stuart said the UK government was actively trying to "accelerate" Turkish membership. She also said it was "simply a statement of fact" that uncontrolled immigration put pressure on services.

Also on immigration, a man in the audience asked how many people arriving per year the UK could "reasonably cope with".

Ms O'Grady said it was important to "manage" migration but said she was "fed up" with migrants being blamed for government shortcomings.

Ms Leadsom said the Bank of England had said uncontrolled immigration put "downward pressure" on wages.


The final section focused on sovereignty and the UK's role in the world.

Ms Leadsom attacked the Brussels "gravy train" which she said controlled 60 percent of UK laws and regulations.

She said the UK had been voted down every time it had tried to object to an EU imposition.

"How is that making our own decisions?" she asked.

Her Tory colleague Ms Davidson said the 60 percent figure was a "blatant untruth". She accused the campaign for leaving of "lying" about that and other subjects including Turkish membership.

Mr Johnson said the home secretary was unable to deport serious criminals because of European laws, saying it was "absolutely amazing how the remain side have the cheek to tell us we improve our security by staying in this organisation".

But Mr Khan challenged him to name one of the UK's NATO allies that supported a vote to leave the EU.

As well as the main panellists, there was a smaller stage featuring campaigners from other political parties, businesses and journalists.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said immigration "goes two ways", saying it was an amazing gift for Britons to be able to work and study overseas.

UK Independence Party's Diane James defended a recent poster from her party showing a long queue of migrations in Slovenia, saying similar images had been used in the media to show the problems with EU free movement.

Also on the second panel were former Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King, who was backing remaining in the EU, and founder and chairman of Wetherspoons Tim Martin, who wanted the UK to leave.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs