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Support for EU in City is 'shallow', says Boris Johnson

Published 23/03/2016

Mayor of London Boris Johnson said many City supporters of EU membership regard the issue as 'finely balanced'
Mayor of London Boris Johnson said many City supporters of EU membership regard the issue as 'finely balanced'

Support in the City for UK membership of the European Union is "shallow" and leading bankers say privately that they do not expect Brexit would do any damage to London's position as the world's leading financial centre, Boris Johnson has claimed.

The Brexit-backing London mayor said he was "generally aware" of surveys which show strong support in the City for continued EU membership, as well as the preference of organisations such as the CBI for a Remain vote.

But he told the House of Commons Treasury Committee that many City supporters of EU membership regard the issue as "finely balanced".

Mr Johnson named Lloyds chairman Lord Blackwell, RBS non-executive director Lady Noakes and Arbuthnot chief executive Sir Henry Angest as "distinguished" bankers who had come out publicly in favour of Brexit.

And he told the Treasury Committee: "I'm struck by how shallow the enthusiasm for the EU seems to be amongst its supposed backers."

He added: "It's interesting that when you dig into these people's opinions, they are much less strongly held than you might suppose ... What has struck me in private conversations which I occasionally have with leading bankers about this is how finely balanced they see it to be.

"Most of them will candidly say they don't believe it will do any damage to London's position as the world's leading financial centre. That is the overwhelming picture I get."

Mr Johnson added: "It's certainly the case that if you look at the survey data, you will find people like the CBI and the Bankers' Association generally tend to be quite supportive of Remain.

"They have also been supportive of going into the euro, regarding it as essential to completing the single market. It turned out to be a disastrous idea. I think they were wrong then and they are wrong now."

The CBI said that its survey of 200 business leaders in London in February found that 95% regarded access to the EU's single market as the capital's "single greatest strength", while a survey of CBI members last week found that 80% said they were better off staying in the EU.

CBI London director Lucy Haynes said: "Keeping London ahead of our global competitors will be a top priority for the capital's businesses. Access to the European single market of 500 million consumers is obviously a major boon to London's firms, and this survey shows the strong desire of the capital's firms to remain in a reformed European Union."

Mr Johnson came under attack over a series of claims he has made over EU regulations which had supposedly banned under-eights from blowing up balloons, prevented British people from recycling teabags and fixed the dimensions of coffins.

Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie told the mayor that the regulation on children's toys which he was referring to did not ban children from blowing up balloons, but simply required packets to carry a warning of the danger of choking or suffocation for children under eight.

The supposed order on coffin sizes was "a figment of your imagination", as the regulation in question was a Council of Europe convention about transferring corpses across borders which did not set dimensions for coffins - and which the UK had in any case not signed - said the committee chairman. And Mr Tyrie said it was "not true" that any EU regulation banned recycling teabags.

"I have been through quite a list where I think a reasonable man would say you have either exaggerated or misrepresented," said Mr Tyrie.

While some of the issues to which Mr Johnson referred might support his case of excessive EU bureaucracy, some of his claims should be subject to qualifications which were "omitted" when he made them in speeches, press articles and books, said Mr Tyrie.

"Do you think on reflection that it might be prudent in the interests of generating a strong case that you add qualifications at the time that you make these remarks?"

Mr Johnson's "language and one-sided descriptions" would be seen by many people as "an exaggeration to the point of misrepresentation", said Mr Tyrie.

But the mayor rejected his argument, insisting that there was an attempt by supporters of the Remain camp to "deprecate" the views of Brexit backers.

He insisted it was "ludicrous" that the issue of children's balloons should be the subject of proscriptions at EU level and said that Cardiff council had banned teabag recycling on the back of EU regulations which outlawed recycling of items which had come into contact with milk or meat.

Mr Johnson said there was "no doubt" that EU regulation was making it more difficult to build homes in London and said he had been prevented by EU rules from making changes to the design of truck cabs intended to save cyclists' lives.

He told the committee: "One big challenge is getting more housing built faster. There is no doubt at all that EU regulation and legislation of one kind or another - environmental impact assessments or whatever - slow down the planning process."

The mayor blamed a "Stockholm syndrome" among UK officials, who tended to interpret EU directives "over-zealously" in ways which do not affect other countries.

The committee chairman accused Mr Johnson of offering "a very partial, busking, humoresque approach to a very serious question for the UK".

"What we really need is a much more balanced exchange in which people make an effort to qualify and represent the points they make and represent each other's views with some accuracy," said Mr Tyrie, who is yet to declare which way he will vote in the referendum. "You are at it again, I'm afraid."

Mr Johnson responded: "I'm glad you say that, because some of my views have been traduced. I'm grateful to you for the opportunity to set straight some of the gross misrepresentations that have been made."

The mayor rejected claims that Britain could face a long period of uncertainty following Brexit as it renegotiated its trade relationships with the remaining EU.

"I don't think there need be a period of uncertainty at all," he told the committee.

It would "not be beyond the wit of man" to strike a deal "based very largely on existing arrangements" and it would be "overwhelmingly" in the interests of remaining member states to do so as rapidly as possible, he said.

"I see absolutely no reason at all, given the huge balances of trade they have with us favourable to them, why they would not want rapidly to do a free trade deal with what is - whether it's 10% or 16% - one of the biggest export markets that the remainder of the EU has," he told the committee.

Mr Johnson denied he was promoting a similar relationship with the EU as that in place with Canada, telling the committee: "I don't want to imitate the Canadian deal. I want a British deal."

But he said: "One of the interesting features of the Canadian deal and the US-Australia deal is that they were able to remove huge numbers of tariff barriers. We could do that. We could go ahead, and indeed we would be able to strike other trade deals around the world, which we are currently prevented from doing.

"There are aspects of the Canadian deal - the tariff-free approach without free movement - that I think are right. There are aspects of the Swiss deal that are less attractive."

Mr Johnson distanced himself from the idea that Britain could vote Leave on June 23 in the hope of securing concessions from the EU which could be the subject of a second referendum.

"I think we have one referendum and we get on with it," he told the committee.

Mr Johnson was repeatedly accused of making misleading and contradictory statements during a marathon session which ran for more than three hours, broken only by a minute's silence for victims of the Brussels attacks.

In one hostile exchange with Labour MP Wes Streeting, he was forced to temper his assertion that Britain could strike a deal on the same terms as it has inside the EU.

Mr Streeting reminded him that, in an article for the German news magazine Der Spiegel last year, he had said the UK " would face some penalties".

"I'm sure there will be some penalties. I don't know. Frankly, I've no idea what penalties they might be so foolish as to try to impose," Mr Johnson told him after a pause.

"There would be some short-term feeling of hurt perhaps on the part of some of our European friends and partners and it would be very important to allay those."

He dismissed as "rubbish" the suggestion that he had changed his views, insisting critics would be "hard-pushed to find a single British politician or journalist who has written more about the failures of democracy in the last 30 years".

"I resent it very much. I've given you my information about what is going wrong. This thing is totally out control and we need to take back control, particularly over the funds and over our borders."

He was challenged by the SNP's George Kerevan over a claim that the Common Agricultural Policy costs every family £400 a year - conceding much of that would still be paid in subsidies by the UK Government instead.

Asked if he would continue to use the figure, he said it was a "handy reference point for the effect on prices of the CAP".

"There is ample scope for savings from bureaucracy and the whole weird architecture."

He told the MPs it would be "unwise" to estimate how much lower immigration would be post-Brexit.

And he gave a damning assessment of the Prime Minister's renegotiation.

"You've seen what happened in the renegotiation. We got absolutely zilch, effectively. That's the best we can hope for."

In a closing shot at his Tory colleague, Mr Tyrie told him: "Some of the claims you have been making, even in recent weeks in some cases in speeches, can easily mislead people. Wouldn't it be better to qualify these remarks much more carefully?"

They included assertions that immigration had a "huge downward impact on wages", the £400 CAP claim, that Brexit would not provoke an economic "shock" and on the proportion of UK legislation "produced" by Brussels.

"We need to have a sensible debate about this subject and there are some very foolish claims which many on this committee think are being made by the Remain camp," the chairman said.

"But it seems that you are now fuelling the fire with some of your own.

"Go on, nitpick away," Mr Johnson shot back as he denied matching the "wildly overdone alarmism" of the pro-EU campaign and answered the individual points.

"Far from my having to clear up some of the things I have said, it is up to the Remain campaign and their running dogs in InFacts and others to explain why they have got it so stunningly wrong."

Closing the session, Mr Tyrie warned: "You are in danger of going back to delivering us grains of truth with mountains of nonsense again, I'm afraid. You were dangerously close to making some very considered points a moment ago."

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