EU Referendum

BCC boss suspended over EU referendum comments

John Longworth Image copyright PA

The director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has been temporarily suspended over his comments this week on Britain leaving the EU.

John Longworth told the business group's annual conference on Thursday that the UK's long-term prospects could be "brighter" outside the EU.

He later said he thought Britain would be "better off" after leaving.

The BCC has said it will not campaign for either side in the 23 June referendum as its membership is split.

Last month, an online poll of its members found that 59.5% of more than 2,000 who responded preferred to remain in the EU and 30% said they would vote to leave.

The BCC is a national body of 52 accredited chambers of commerce across the UK, representing thousands of large, medium and small businesses.

The Financial Times has reported that the group's board held an emergency meeting to discuss how to reconcile the difference in views between Mr Longworth and many BCC members on EU membership.

Members were later told Mr Longworth had been temporarily suspended for breaching the group's official position of neutrality, the paper added.

'No real mandate'

Phil Smith, managing director of the Business West Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses across the south-west, told BBC Radio 4's PM programme, he was "quite surprised and somewhat annoyed" at Mr Longworth's remarks.

He said: "He had no real mandate. The BCC had decided to be neutral.

"We don't care what John Longworth's personal view is, you don't care what Phil Smith's personal view is. He was there as director general of the British Chamber of Commerce. He shouldn't have said those things."

Mr Smith added it was up to the board of the BCC to decide on Mr Longworth's future.

In his speech, Mr Longworth had described the referendum as a choice between the "devil and the deep blue sea".

One option was staying in an "essentially unreformed EU", with the other being the uncertainty of leaving, he told the conference.

"The dynamism and resilience of the City of London and the UK business sector suggests to me that, in the long run, we have the capacity and capability to create a bright, if not brighter, economic future outside of the EU - just as we would have done had we had the opportunity to stay in a truly reformed Europe," he said.

Who is John Longworth?

  • Appointed BCC director general in 2011
  • Has worked for big names, including Tesco and Asda
  • Has held non-executive director positions at the Co-operative Food Group and drinks company Nichols
  • Has been on the Competition Commission panel
  • Has served as a consultant to Barts Hospital Trust
  • Founded SVA, a science research firm

Mr Longworth added that BCC members would be surveyed so their views could inform the debate ahead of the vote in June.

The BCC responded at the time by saying it would not be campaigning for either side and that Mr Longworth's comments "reflect his personal assessment, rather than the position of the BCC".

Speaking to Sky News after he gave his speech, Mr Longworth said: "I actually went on in my speech beyond what the Chambers of Commerce believe, to talk a little bit about what my analysis of the evidence has been.

"And my analysis of the evidence is that actually, with the reforms that we received so far, the UK would be better off taking a decision to leave the European Union."

Pro-EU campaign group Britain Stronger in Europe said: "This affair demonstrates that, while some individual businesspeople are campaigning to leave the EU, their views do not come close to representing the clear majority of British businesses - large and small."

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