The British Chambers of Commerce said on Sunday its director general, John Longworth, had resigned after calling for Britain to leave the European Union despite the business lobby group taking a neutral stance on an upcoming referendum.
In his speech at the BCC’s annual conference on Thursday, Longworth said while the group would not be campaigning on either side ahead of a June 23 vote, it was his personal observation that the EU was incapable of meaningful reform and Britain could have a bright economic future outside the bloc.
He had been suspended by the BCC’s board following the comments, the Financial Times reported on Saturday.
“John’s personal view on the referendum is likely to create confusion regarding the BCC’s neutral stance going forward. In light of this, John has taken the decision to step down as Director-General and his resignation has been accepted,” BCC President Nora Senior said in a statement.
“All representatives of the BCC have the right to personal and political views on the key issues of the day. However, they are not expected to articulate these views while acting in their professional capacity, as their views could be misconstrued as representing the position of the organisation as a whole.”
Earlier, the Sunday Telegraph quoted an unnamed friend of Longworth saying Prime Minister David Cameron’s office had put pressure on the board to suspend him, prompting a backlash from ‘Out’ campaigners who said the government was trying to silence those who favour leaving the bloc.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, the ‘Out’ campaign’s most high-profiled backer, said it was “scandalous” that Longworth had been forced to step aside for what he said was a “a passionate optimistic view”.
Conservative lawmaker and former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who is also campaigning for ‘Out’, said it was inappropriate to use “the apparatus of the state” to put pressure on those expressing their personal views.
“This is not a hysterical witch hunt,” he told the BBC. “We need to understand early on in this referendum the rules of the game. People need to be free to express themselves without having the full weight of the pro-EU elite coming down on them.”
But the BCC’s Senior said “no external factors” had been involved.
“No politician or interest group had any influence on the BCC board decision to suspend Mr Longworth. His subsequent resignation was agreed mutually between Mr Longworth and the BCC,” she said.