Boris Johnson has come under sustained attack during a televised debate on the EU referendum, as a Conservative minister joined forces with a Labour shadow minister to question his motives in backing Brexit. In an exchange on economic figures, energy secretary Amber Rudd said the former London mayor was only interested in one number, No 10, a charge echoed by shadow business secretary Angela Eagle.
“I don’t think you care about the thousands of jobs that could be at risk. I think you only care about your next job,” Ms Eagle said.
In her closing remarks, Ms Rudd made a point of belittling her party colleague, Mr Johnson.
“As for Boris, he is the life and soul of the party but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening,” she said.
The ITV debate, which also included Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon for Remain and treasury minister Andrea Leadsom and Labour's Gisela Stuart for Leave, began with a question on immigration.
“I am massively pro immigration but there has to be democratic consent,” Mr Johnson said, complaining that EU membership made it impossible for the government to keep its election promise to reduce annual net immigration to the tens of thousands.
Ms Sturgeon argued that immigration benefited the UK, pointing out that many British people lived in other EU countries, although they were called ex-pats rather than migrants. Later, in an exchange on the National Health Service, Ms Sturgeon renewed her defence of the positive impact of immigration.
"You're more likely to be treated by an immigrant in the NHS than you are to be treated on the next bed to an immigrant," she said.
Ms Eagle recalled Mr Johnson’s previous support for charging for access to healthcare and accused the Leave campaign of blaming immigration for all Britain’s problems.
“Why are the Leave campaign blaming it on immigration? They are obsessed with it,” she said.
Mr Johnson denied that the Leave campaign was playing hard and fast with the truth, insisting that he was dealing solely in “cold, hard facts”. Ms Sturgeon said she had no interest in frightening voters into choosing to remain in the EU, urging them to use their own common sense in making their decision.
“I’m the last person who is going to defend scaremongering. I was on the receiving end of it for two years during the Scottish referendum,” she said.
As Remain campaigners sought to undermine Mr Johnson's credibility, Ms Leadsom accused Ms Sturgeon of ignoring the Scottish independence referendum by pushing for a second vote on independence.
"When we have a referendum in this great United Kingdom of ours we listen and go away and fulfil their instructions," Ms Leadsom said.
The Remain campaign received a boost earlier on Thursday when Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston defected from the Leave campaign, announcing that she will vote to stay in the EU. A general practitioner who is influential on the backbenches where she is respected as an independent figure, Dr Wollaston said she could not associate herself with the Leave campaign's inaccurate claim that Britain sends £350 million a week to the EU.
“For someone like me who has long campaigned for open and honest data in public life I could not have set foot on a battle bus that has at the heart of its campaign a figure that I know to be untrue,” she said.
“If you’re in a position where you can’t hand out a Vote Leave leaflet, you can’t be campaigning for that organisation.”
The deadline for registering to vote was extended for 48 hours after the official website crashed under pressure from last-minute registrations. Most of those who registered late were younger voters, a group that tends to favour remaining in the EU.