THE HEAD of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has been suspended after saying the UK would be “better off” outside the European Union, according to reports.
John Longworth, a former executive at Leeds-based Asda, gave a keynote speech on Thursday in which he said the referendum was a choice between the “devil and the deep blue sea”, with the options being to remain in an unreformed EU or to face “near-term uncertainty and disruption” in the wake of a Brexit.
However he later told Sky News: “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.”
According to the Financial Times, Mr Longworth, who has been director general of the BCC since 2011, was later temporarily suspended for breaching its official stance of neutrality.
In a statement before reports of the suspension arose, the BCC said it “will not be campaigning for either side ahead of the EU referendum”.
A spokesman said: “The BCC will survey Chamber member companies across the UK, report their diverse views, and inform the debate.
“The BCC’s director general has been very clear where his remarks reflect his personal assessment, rather than the position of the BCC.”
Phil Smith, managing director of the largest chamber in the BCC, Business West, told the Financial Times he was “appalled” by the director general’s “very public” claim that Britain would be better served outside the EU.
He said: “Chambers up and down the country are at this time carefully listening to their members’ views and ensuring that we properly represent our business community in this very important and complicated issue.”
He added: “I don’t believe that John had a mandate from the 50 or so British accredited chambers of commerce that he is supposed to represent.”
Richard Swart, a member of the north-east chamber, told the newspaper the interview was a “dereliction of duty to most members’ views”.
Mr Longworth’s comments in support of leaving the EU contradicts many of the national business body’s 2,000 members.
A survey in September revealed 60% would vote to remain, while 30% would vote to leave. Of those surveyed 10 per cent were undecided.
The controversy came as a survey of 1,000 employers by job site reed.co.uk showed that almost two-thirds were in favour of staying in the EU. Just over half said Brexit would put UK jobs at risk.