Business leader quits in Brexit row

Downing Street remains under intense pressure from Eurosceptics to come clean over whether it had any involvement in the ousting of John Longworth, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, reports The Times.

Mr Longworth was suspended on Friday after making a speech in favour of leaving the EU despite the BCC’s decision to remain neutral in the referendum campaign.

Tory MPs are to raise questions in parliament over his removal. While Downing St vehemently denies that there was any pressure placed on the BCC to remove Mr Longworth, it has refused to deny that contact was made with the group after his surprise declaration. George Osborne and Sajid Javid, the business secretary, were speaking at the conference at which Mr Longworth backed Brexit.

Those fighting to leave the EU consider that he is fast becoming the first “Brexit martyr”. Douglas Carswell, the Ukip MP, tweeted: “Well done Downing St. You got your man. This is what Project Fear looks like. Nasty people in Number 10.”

Boris Johnson had earlier said Mr Longworth had been “crushed by the agents of Project Fear”. Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, has vowed to ask questions on the floor of the Commons about whether there was any contact between the BCC and Downing St before his suspension.

The BCC said last night that it had not been pressured into the decision to suspend Mr Longworth. Nora Senior, its president, said: “John Longworth and the board recognise that 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.

“No politician or interest group had any influence on the BCC board decision to suspend Mr Longworth.

“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.”

A Downing St spokesman said: “Given that 60 per cent of BCC members say they want to stay in the EU, No 10 was surprised to see the director general of the organisation come out for Brexit . . . Of course No 10 talks to business organisations regularly — but, to be clear: no pressure was applied.”