LONDON - Campaigning in Britain is in its final phase ahead of Thursday’s referendum on EU membership as polls show the "Remain" camp gaining, a possible indication of how the murder of anti-Brexit lawmaker Jo Cox by a suspected right-wing extremist may be tipping the balance in favor of keeping the status quo.
“I think it spooked a lot of voters, a lot of wavering voters,” said Andrew Hawkins, head of ComRes, a London market research firm whose latest poll suggests support for staying in the EU is rising among voters who had previously described themselves as undecided.
Until the middle of last week, the ComRes poll showed the "Leave" campaign gaining momentum, narrowing its lag behind the "Remain" camp from to just one percentage point. “But it’s strongly suggested that momentum has been brought to a halt by the events of Thursday,” Hawkins told VOA.
“It put them off wanting to be associated with the sort of people who may have been a bit more sympathetic to the sort of thing we saw on Thursday even if there are other issues like the mental health of the assailant that was involved in it as well,” he said.
Thomas Mair, 52, is the lone suspect charged in the shooting and stabbing death of Cox, a pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, junior member of parliament. In his first court appearance Saturday, Mair, who reports say has a history of links to racist groups and mental problems, refused to identify himself by his legal name, saying, “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
Cox’s killing stunned Britain and prompted both camps to suspend campaigning for three days.
Campaigning resumed Sunday, with both sides holding large rallies in London and making a visible effort to lower their tones at the end of what observers say has been a bitter and nasty run-up to the referendum that many, in their minds, link to Cox’s murder.
Immigration has been a key issue among voters uncomfortable with Britain’s rising multicultural society, fears made worse by last year’s migrant crisis and images of a massive influx of refugees from the Middle East and migrants from North Africa.
Supporters of the "Leave" campaign have tended to include older voters who are concerned about sovereignty and overreach by a European Union governing apparatus in which British voters do not directly elect their representatives. Many in the "Leave" camp are blue-collar workers who see the tide of immigrants, including a large population of EU workers from Poland, as threatening their livelihood.
Those sentiments have been fanned by anti-immigrant movements such as that led by Nigel Farage, a far-right lawmaker and Brexit proponent whose group, within hours of Cox’s murder, released a campaign poster showing thousands of migrants and refugees waiting at the EU border with the words “Breaking Point.”
Critics included Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, who said the poster had echoes of xenophobic propaganda put out by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Seeing the poster caused the former chair of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party to end her support for leaving the EU, it was reported Monday.
Sayeeda Warsi, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants and the first Muslim woman to head the Conservatives, said, “Hate and xenophobia” portrayed in the poster caused her to change her stance on Brexit, telling The Times newspaper, “I can’t go on supporting this.”
Warsi’s decision appeared to reflect the attitudes of previously undecided voters who took part in the poll by Andrew Hawkins’ firm. “It seemed to confirm their suspicions that the campaign was getting nasty, that we all need to come back and get real again and ignore the tone of the campaign and make the decision based on the facts,” Hawkins said.