LONDON (AA) – ANALYSIS – If you believe Britain’s finance minister, the U.K. is just weeks away from an economic shock so severe that half a million people would lose their jobs.
George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said on Monday that a U.K. exit from the European Union would be trigger a year-long recession that would see Britain’s GDP drop by as much as 6 percent.
His warning – issued at a joint appearance at the headquarters of major retailer B&Q with Prime Minister David Cameron – came precisely one month before the referendum on June 23.
“With exactly one month to go until the referendum, the British people must ask themselves this question: can we knowingly vote for recession?” he asked an assembled crowd of employees and journalists.
Osborne’s gloomy message was based on an analysis by the Treasury – the government department he is responsible for – which projected that output would plummet and at least 500,000 jobs would be lost across the country if Britain voted to leave.
The U.K. would “permanently poorer” with GDP £4,300 [$6,224] lower in 2015 terms for each household after 15 years, his analysis claimed, citing the financial conditions and uncertainty that Brexit could cause.
But Osborne’s figures were immediately and ferociously rubbished by Brexit supporters – a sign of how divisive Britain’s referendum campaign will be in its final month.
The lead voice on Monday was Iain Duncan Smith, a high-profile U.K. cabinet minister until he dramatically resigned in March.
In a statement, he accused his former colleague Osborne of bias.
“The Treasury has consistently got its predictions wrong in the past,” he said.
“This Treasury document is not an honest assessment but a deeply biased view of the future and it should not be believed by anyone.
Vote Leave, the organization that campaigns for Brexit, echoed the view: “The Treasury has previously admitted its economic forecasts are fixed by the government of the day to suit its political policies. We cannot trust such forecasts today.”
Both sides in this referendum are using messages of fear to persuade voters to join them. On Sunday, it was Brexit supporters who used the tactic – to argue continued membership of the EU would mean millions of people migrating to the U.K. from Turkey.
Penny Mordaunt, a defense minister and Leave campaigner, appeared to suggest Britain would not have a veto over Turkey’s accession to the EU in the future.
It was an alarmist message that resonated in Britain, where voters identify immigration as one of the most important issues facing the country, and earned a near-instant televised rebuke from Cameron.
Mordaunt told the BBC on Sunday morning: “I do not think that the EU is going to keep Turkey out. […] The only shot that the British people will get at expressing a view on this is the EU referendum.”
Within an hour, speaking to rival broadcaster ITV, Cameron responded: “Britain and every other country in the EU has a veto on another country joining and that is a fact.”
Opinion polls suggest that, with a month to go, fear as a campaign message is not changing many voters’ minds.
Most surveys have put Remain ahead of Leave by a margin of between three and eleven percentage points since the beginning of the year, although all report a substantial number of voters have not yet made up their mind.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has experience of divisive referendum campaigns in the U.K., having been on the losing side of the passionately fought Scottish independence vote in 2014.
A supporter of Britain’s continued EU membership, she told UK broadcaster Channel 4 she hoped the Remain campaign would use its opinion-poll lead to drive a more positive campaign in the month ahead.
“Let's enthuse people about going out to vote on the 23rd of June, not scare them into doing it.
“Because the danger if we try to scare people is they stay at home and turn away from the whole process so I think there's a real opportunity for having an overwhelming vote for remaining in the EU if we fight for the remaining weeks for that positive, upbeat campaign.”