EU Referendum

How EU referendum insults escalated

The EU referendum debate is rapidly turning into a festival of name-calling and insults. How did we get here?

A civilised debate

It all started out so well. David Cameron decided to allow members of his cabinet to campaign for either side in the EU referendum. Some argue he had no choice, given the likelihood of resignations. Others wondered how it would work, with big personalities like Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith having public disagreements with Mr Cameron and George Osborne one minute and then calmly putting aside their differences the next to get on with running the country.

But both sides insisted they could be grown up about it.

"We should all be big enough to have an honest and open, but polite disagreement, and then come back together again afterwards," said Mr Cameron.

Announcing his decision to join the Leave campaign in February, Boris Johnson praised the PM's renegotiation attempts, and urged his divided Conservative colleagues to "play the ball and not the man".

Early skirmishes

There was plenty of ill-feeling flying around before the debate proper got under way, with a bitter and personal row between the two rival Leave campaigns and mutterings from Eurosceptic backbenchers about how little they thought Mr Cameron had achieved in his renegotiations.

But the big beasts managed to keep it relatively civil, with personal attacks couched in the coded language of Westminster. David Cameron's comments in the Commons, shortly after Boris Johnson joined the Leave camp, about having "no other agenda than what is best for our country" was interpreted as a jibe at the former London mayor's leadership ambitions. It was written up in the press as a "war" between the two men.

Duncan Smith's Resignation

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Iain Duncan Smith may have resigned from the Cabinet over cuts to disability benefits in March's Budget - but it gave him freedom to say what he really thinks about David Cameron and George Osborne and their campaign to keep Britain in the EU. And he has not held back.

He has been scathing about Mr Cameron's renegotiations, claiming he achieved "nothing", and has accused the Remain campaign of "spin, smears and threats" to try to "bully" Britons into voting to stay. He has also appealed for calm, warning that all the rows risk long-term damage to the Conservative Party.

That leaflet

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What has enraged the Leave camp, possibly more than anything else, is the way in which they think the prime minister has used the might of the government machine to rig the referendum debate in his favour. The government's decision, in April, to spend £9m on sending a glossy brochure to every household in the country led to loud cries of foul play. David Cameron said the government was entitled to state its case.

But Boris Johnson claimed the PM had reneged on his promise to "fight fair" during the referendum because he was "losing the argument". The Treasury's analysis of the economic consequences of Brexit provoked an even more furious reaction from the Leavers, particularly when George Osborne accused them of being "economically illiterate".

Boris's barbs

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The former Mayor of London has been on vintage form during this campaign, dreaming up ever more inventive ways of trashing the Remain campaign, headed by his old friend and rival David Cameron.

He has compared them to jeweller Gerald Ratner, who famously called his own products "crap". He has described the global leaders backing the Remain campaign as appearing in Downing Street "hostage videos".

A visit to an underwear factory in Derbyshire proved to be a target rich environment for the ex-Mayor.

He compared the EU to a "badly designed undergarment", shouted "pants on fire" at the Remain campaign, before unleashing the inevitable battle cry: "Knickers to all those who talk Britain down."

Sir Nicholas wades in

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David Cameron has largely avoided slinging mud back at Boris, but another Old Etonian Conservative MP has stepped manfully into the breach.

Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Sir Winston Churchill and ardent supporter of Britain's membership of the EU, is not a fan of the former London mayor, it seems.

When Mr Johnson penned an article referencing Barack Obama's "part Kenyan" ancestry, Sir Nicholas had this to say on LBC radio: "I like to think, possibly - I'm mad enough to think - that it was probably written by some little twerp who works for Boris. I can't believe that Boris would really have done something so stupid, but whatever it is it bears his name and it is deeply offensive."

Sir Nicholas has kept up the Boris-baiting on his Twitter account, calling him the "unchallenged master of the self inflicted wound" and branding his comments about Hitler and the EU "absurd, desperate and outright offensive".

Red-on-red conflict

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With Labour MPs and members overwhelmingly supportive of the Remain campaign, "red on red" attacks have been less frequent than the "blue on blue" variety. But Jeremy Corbyn's previous Eurosceptic sentiments have not gone unnoticed by the Labour Leave campaign.

Labour MP Kate Hoey suggested the Labour leader (motto "straight talking, honest politics") was being less than straight with his decision to embrace the Remain cause.

She said Labour voters would "see through" him. "We know first of all, that he doesn't really mean it, no matter how much he tries to pretend he does, and secondly, that it is not in the interest of the Labour movement," she told the BBC News channel.

Mr Corbyn says he wants to stay in the EU to fight for social reforms and workers' rights.

'Project fear'

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The prime minister's warning that peace could be at risk from an EU exit did not go down well with the Leave side. It was mocked by Boris Johnson, who said it was "very curious" that the prime minister had called a referendum on leaving the EU, only to warn us "that World War III is about to break out unless we vote to remain".

The Leave campaign's constant refrain is that Remain are trying to scare voters into backing their side. They call it Project Fear.

The Remain campaign, for its part, have tried to suggest the Leavers are a bunch of swivel-eyed conspiracy theorists.

"The next thing we know, the Leave camp will be accusing us of faking the moon landings, kidnapping Shergar and covering up the existence of the Loch Ness monster," said George Osborne last week, on a visit to Stansted airport with Ed Balls and Sir Vince Cable.

Don't mention the war...

There is an old internet maxim, known as Godwin's Law, that states the longer a debate goes on the more likely it is that someone will bring up Hitler or the Nazis.

It was Boris Johnson who proved it correct last week, when he compared the EU's efforts to unify Europe to Hitler's. This was the moment that turned simmering tensions into (apologies for mixing the metaphors) a full-blown firestorm.

Blond bombshells

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Lord Heseltine - a longstanding supporter of the EU - suggested that the strain of the campaign must be getting to Boris Johnson, causing him to lose his judgement, blasting Mr Johnson's Hitler article as "preposterous" and "obscene" and suggesting he is not fit be Tory leader.

Iain Duncan Smith dismissed Lord Heseltine as a "voice from the past" and fellow Leave campaigner Steve Baker accused Downing Street of being behind "vicious briefings" against his side, as he called for an end to "personal nastiness".

Can everybody just calm down?

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And that is where we are today, with Conservative MPs on all sides appealing for an end to "blue-on-blue" conflict as the civil war in their party appears to rage out of control.

But at least one Tory Leave campaigner is taking the longer view. Jacob-Rees Mogg, writing in the Financial Times has drawn parallels with Conservative splits over the Corn Laws in the 19th century.

"The Tory party survived great splits when its discipline and structures were much less well founded than they are now. The EU referendum will decide the matter of Europe for a generation - and the party is united in all other important policy areas."

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