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Brexit battle turns bitter as Alan Johnson calls Leave supporters 'extremists'

Published 10/05/2016

David Cameron insisted there is
David Cameron insisted there is "safety in numbers"

Bitter personal exchanges dominated the Brexit battle as Labour's former home secretary Alan Johnson was accused of demeaning the campaign by calling the Leave side "unbalanced extremists".

Tory ex-cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith reacted angrily to the intervention after Mr Johnson insisted Leave supporters were not rational.

Launching Labour's pro-EU battle bus tour, Mr Johnson said the "extremist" tag was not incendiary but accurate, because those who wanted Britain to withdraw believed everything about Brussels was bad.

"It's an extreme view that there is absolutely nothing good about the EU at all.

"It's extreme - not to take the view that we ought to leave - but the view that you cannot find anything good to say about an institution that has done many good things, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, is admired in terms of its role in keeping the peace on our continent, you can find nothing good to say about it whatsoever.

"It is like if I was to come in here and say we ought to leave Nato, and here's all the reasons, and Nato has done nothing good, I would be classified as an extremist.

"We can all find things that are wrong with the European Union, but they can't find anything that's right - and that suggests a kind of, a certain mentality, that is not rational, and not balanced," Mr Johnson said.

Mr Duncan Smith hit back by accusing the Labour former cabinet member of engaging in "threats" and being "ridiculous".

"I don't know in what world it is extreme to want to have your democracy back, power over what you do, control over your laws and the power to make decisions about your people, elected by British people and rejected by British people when you get it wrong.

"If someone wants to tell me that's an extreme position, then I want to know what defines that.

"It is not extreme to want democratic government in your country, to be responsible to the electorate and to make the laws that best help them rather than have 60% of those laws made in Brussels.

"Those people in Remain really need to stop throwing threats and ridiculous terms like that around. It just demeans them, and it demeans the debate," Mr Duncan Smith said.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also used the launch to insist he was fully behind the Remain campaign despite his own "many criticisms" of the EU.

"I've made many, many criticisms of the European Union; I still make those criticisms," Mr Corbyn said as he insisted he backed the Remain stance in order to defend workers' rights and the environment.

"We see it as an act of solidarity with people who think like us across Europe; going it alone won't help them, and won't help us," Mr Corbyn said as he dismissed claims immigration was having a negative impact on wages and public services.

The Labour leader also said he was opposed to the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal being negotiated between the EU and the US, and pledged to stop it.

Mr Johnson also disputed Leave claims that the UK sends £350 million a week to Brussels, but warned that even if that same amount was redirected to the NHS it would be a "drop in the ocean".

"We spend £2.65 billion a week on the NHS - it's a drop in the ocean," Mr Johnson said.

Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart said: " The Remain campaign wants the elites to have more power and money, and not to give back control to the British people.

"Patients struggling to get care on the NHS will rightly think that they are completely out of touch when they claim that £350 million - enough to build a new hospital every week - is just a drop in the ocean."

Asked whether David Cameron regarded advocates of a Leave vote as "extremists", a Downing Street spokesman said: "The Prime Minister has already made clear that he respects the views of others on this issue, but he is very clear that staying in the EU is the right thing for the UK and that is why he is making the case very forcefully for us to do so."

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