Businesses warned 'not to meddle'
Tory former Cabinet minister John Redwood has warned leading company bosses they will pay a "very dear economic and financial price" if they choose to speak out in favour of remaining in the European Union.
The prominent Eurosceptic urged big businesses to keep out of the debate in the run-up to the referendum on membership of the EU promised by David Cameron by the end of 2017.
His comments were criticised by the Confederation of British Industry's deputy director general Katja Hall, who said the business world had a "duty" to speak out.
Former chancellor Ken Clarke compared Mr Redwood's intervention to the comments made before the Scottish independence referendum by former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars, who warned business would face a "day of reckoning" for voicing concern about breaking up the union.
At a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference, Mr Redwood demanded firms "keep out" of the debate and "beware" not to "meddle in politics", The Telegraph reported.
Mr Redwood told a fringe event about Britain's place in the EU that "the only answer for all concerned is for big business to keep out and not express a corporate view".
He added: "If they don't understand that now they will find those of us organising the 'get out' campaign will then make life difficult for them by making sure that their customers, their employees and their shareholders who disagree with them - and there will be a lot who disagree with them - will be expressing their views very forcefully and will be destabilising their corporate governance.
"This is absolutely crucial that these people get this. That it will be deeply disruptive to their businesses, and maybe even to their own tenure of their jobs, if a chief executive with a handful of shares thinks he can put the voice of a multi-national corporation behind a highly intense political argument in one country in which they operate.
"It would be extremely foolish and we must make sure they have to pay a very dear economic and financial price were they to try that ill-judged thing."
Mr Clarke, one of the leading pro-EU voices in the Tory ranks, told a separate fringe event at the Birmingham gathering: "This is the first time I can recall John Redwood catching the tone of the more zealot Scottish nationalists."
Ms Hall, who was sharing a platform with Mr Clarke, said: "I think that business not only has a right but a duty to speak about this."