The owner of Blackwell’s bookshops will bankroll the growing grassroots campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, declaring that the referendum represents a new “Battle for Britain”.
Toby Blackwell pledged his “full 100 per cent support” to the LEAVE.EU cross-party drive to take Britain out of Europe.
Mr Blackwell, who is estimated to be worth about £300 million, is likely to make donations totalling millions of pounds between now and the referendum, which will be held before the end of 2017, and has given a “significant” but undisclosed sum already, campaign sources said.
His recruitment, on the eve of the Conservative party conference in Manchester, comes as the Tories’ oldest think-tank, the Bow Group, announced that it was also joining forces with the LEAVE.EU campaign.
The double announcement will boost the hopes of LEAVE.EU that it will be recognised as the official “out” group in the referendum, amid bitter rivalries between competing Eurosceptic groupings on the Right.
David Cameron has begun renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU and has promised to put a new deal to voters in a referendum on whether to remain in or leave Europe, by the end of 2017.
The question of whether Britain should quit the EU splits the Tory party and the Cabinet, with Mr Cameron and the Chancellor, George Osborne, expected to lead the campaign to stay in the Europe.
But other Cabinet ministers and scores of Tory MPs are certain to want to vote to take Britain out of the EU, when the referendum is held. There are splits even among eurosceptics on the political Right, with Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, and his supporters clashing with senior Tories, despite the fact that they both want Britain to withdraw from the EU.
Mr Blackwell, 85, whose great-grandfather founded the bookshop in 1879, attacked the “Westminster elite” for undermining the “out” campaign and called on squabbling politicians to step back in order to allow a people’s movement to grow.
“When the pilots took off from Biggin Hill for the Battle of Britain they did not worry about the money. This is our generation’s Battle for Britain,” Mr Blackwell said.
“I believe that the campaign group LEAVE.EU is the only organisation that can be supported if we are to win the EU referendum. They are not part of the Westminster elite, which given control of the campaign will alienate the broader electorate that we need if we are to win. This Battle for Britain is not owned by any political party or any politicians but all of us. This should be a people’s campaign and that’s why I am giving the LEAVE.EU campaign my full support.”
Both the “in” and “out” campaigns have been gathering momentum but divisions between competing “out” campaign groups in recent days have threatened to undermine the efforts of eurosceptics who want the UK to quit the EU.
Last week, Lord Lawson of Blaby, the former Chancellor, announced that he would be leading a Tory “out” group – Conservatives for Britain – in the referendum campaign. He warned that “xenophobic voices” – seen as a clear reference to Ukip – would dominate the Eurosceptic debate unless Mr Cameron sets out more details of the reforms he wants to see.
Conservatives for Britain has rebuffed approaches from LEAVE.EU to join forces and work as a single coordinated “out” campaign. Mr Blackwell said he was dismayed that senior politicians were refusing to cooperate. “I am shocked that certain politicians in Westminster are so arrogant that they will not work with the team behind LEAVE.EU and that is why I am going to throw my full support behind them,” he said.
The businessman’s backing came as the referendum was set to be a dominant theme at the Tory conference in Manchester this week, with a succession of fringe events and debates focusing on reforming or severing Britain’s ties with Brussels.
The Bow Group, which was founded in 1951 and is the oldest think-tank linked to the Tories, also announced it will join the LEAVE.EU campaign.
Writing in the forthcoming edition of the group’s Crossbow magazine, Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the Bow Group, announced the organisation will be backing British exit from the EU.
He said: “We want to play our part, alongside those of all political colours and none, to take this debate to the country and make the case that whoever you are and wherever you come from in Britain, we’ll be better off as a strong, fully independent nation.
“We have had this debate inside Westminster for as long as anyone can remember, and we’ve won the chance to have a referendum – now it’s time to take it to the country, and the LEAVE.EU group is by far the best placed to do that.”
The LEAVE.EU campaign was set up by Arron Banks, a successful businessman and major donor to Ukip. He told The Sunday Telegraph that the group would hire a senior Labour supporting figure to become its campaign director. LEAVE.EU has recruited one of America’s most successful political strategists, Gerry Gunster, as an consultant to give strategic advice on how to win the referendum.
Mr Banks said he wanted the campaign to be funded entirely from private donations and small contributions from members of the public, rather than taking taxpayers’ money which will be made available. The group is using highly sophisticated micro-targeting techniques to direct Facebook adverts to people who can be persuaded to join.
Some 160,000 people have joined the grassroots campaign since it was founded last month. More than 1,000 donations, including many small contributions of £3 or £5, have been made in the past week from individuals who have signed up online.
Mr Banks said: “Political parties tend to be inefficient. We are trying to bring industry techniques in a ruthless and efficient fashion. We are trying to be funded directly by the general public. We want to get to a position where we don’t accept the Electoral Commission’s money, where we are funded by the public, not the taxpayer. That gives you massive moral high ground.
“We will probably say to the other side, we won’t take the taxpayers’ money if you don’t take it.”
He said 20 per cent of those who have joined the campaign were Labour supporters, 45 per cent backed Ukip, and 29 per cent were Tory voters.