EU referendum: Barack Obama to urge Britons to back remain vote on UK visit

Exclusive: Prospect of intervention is major coup for the pro-EU campaign, but has prompted fury from Brexiteers

Mark Leftly
Saturday 12 March 2016 23:10 GMT
Barack Obama is expected to visit the UK in April to speak against Brexit
Barack Obama is expected to visit the UK in April to speak against Brexit

Barack Obama will jet into the UK next month and use his star power to convince Britons they should vote to stay in the European Union.

The timing of the US President’s intervention, a major coup for the Remain campaign, is revealed by The Independent on Sunday, as a ComRes poll for this newspaper finds that Boris Johnson, unofficial leader of the Leave campaign, matches David Cameron on “trust” – suggesting that the referendum could be closely fought. Asked which of the two they trust more to do what is best for Britain, 35 per cent say Mr Cameron and 34 per cent Mr Johnson.

Mr Obama’s visit will also help restore relations with Mr Cameron. In an interview last week, the US president accused the Prime Minister of being “distracted” over the Libya campaign.

This has been viewed as an unprecedented rift between countries that are supposed to have a “special relationship”. Mr Obama appeared to suggest that Mr Cameron did not help oversee the transition to a stable government after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, though the President’s advisers have since insisted he did not mean to be critical.

A No 10 source confirmed that Mr Obama will make his intervention and visit the UK as an extra leg of a trip to Germany next month. He is scheduled to open the Hannover Messe 2016 technology fair on 24 April.

The source said: “Barack Obama is coming over at around that time. You wouldn’t look stupid saying that [the President is going to tell British voters to stay in the EU]. It would be pretty shocking if he didn’t ask voters to stay in the EU.”

Rumours have circulated for months that Mr Obama, who is considered the greatest electoral campaigner of his generation after becoming the first black person to win the White House in 2008, would intervene on the EU vote.

UK would not join the EU today

Bob Corker, the chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, said last month that Mr Obama was planning “a big, public reach-out” to persuade British voters of the merits of staying in the EU. But several government and Remain campaign sources have now confirmed the timing and added that he will fly into the UK to make a direct appeal to the British electorate.

The IoS can also reveal a host of high-profile names who have joined the Women In campaign, led by Jenny Halpern Prince. These are journalist and television presenter Mariella Frostrup, award-winning computer scientist Dr Sue Black, and author Kathy Lette.

Brexiteers are furious at the prospect of Mr Obama swaying undecided British voters. A pre-emptive online petition has nearly 16,000 signatories, who want to “Stop President Obama from speaking inside our Westminster Parliament concerning Britain staying inside the European Union”. Steve Baker, the Conservative MP who said Britain’s recent EU membership renegotiations were akin to “polishing poo”, told the IoS: “Whenever a US president intervenes in our constitutional future, I always reread the US Declaration of Independence. We will solve peacefully at the ballot box the problem for which their nation fought a bloody war of insurrection.

“I will take lessons from the US president when the US accepts a supreme court over its own, and free movement from Canada to Central America – but God bless America!”

Peter Bone, another Conservative MP who is prominent in the Leave campaign, added: “Why should President Obama tell the UK whether we should be part of a European superstate or a sovereign nation? He should keep his comments, his views, to himself.”

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has welcomed Mr Obama's visit

But Tim Farron, leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, said Mr Obama’s visit was “welcome”. He added: “This is a reminder that if Britain wants to be a big player on the world stage, then being in the EU is one of the ways we achieve it.

“Sometimes our friends from outside have a clear picture on where we stand. People often refer to the fact that we’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, but they forget we were only the seventh biggest economy when we joined the European Community [in 1973]. Our political relevance is enhanced by the EU.”

Mr Farron’s pro-EU stance has taken a surprising knock by the establishment of a Liberal Democrat Brexit campaign, headed by former MP Paul Keetch. Mr Farron said: “It wouldn’t be the Lib Dems if someone didn’t oppose what 99.5 per cent of the party agree with.”

A White House spokesman said there was no UK visit to announce “at this time”.

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