Furious former Prime Minister John Major launched a brutal assault on the “squalid” Brexit campaign as Conservative infighting over Europe reached a new level of ferocity.
Sir John made a series of personal attacks on Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith, who he said were running a campaign making “deceitful” claims and “misleading” the public.
It also emerged that Ruth Davidson is being lined up as the next senior figure to take on former London Mayor Mr Johnson in a televised debate.
It was reported that the Scottish Tory leader has been identified by the Remain campaign as an asset for the BBC’s Wembley event, which will take place just 36 hours before the country goes to the polls.
Sources close to Ms Davidson said she was “prepared to do it” but nothing has been confirmed as yet.
It has been reported that aides to Prime Minister David Cameron think that pitching women against the man tipped by some to be the next incumbent at Downing Street will make it more difficult for him to attack them without looking sexist and abusive.
But it was Sir John showing aggression yesterday, as he branded Mr Johnson a “court jester” who would not have the loyalty of Conservative MPs if he becomes party leader.
The NHS would be “about as safe” in the hands of Mr Johnson, Justice Secretary Mr Gove and former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith as a “pet hamster would be with a hungry python”, he claimed.
Sir John told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “Firstly on the economy and what would happen if we actually left, the Leave campaign have said absolutely nothing to the British people and what they have said about leaving is fundamentally dishonest and it’s dishonest about the cost of Europe.
“And on the subject that they have veered towards, having lost the economic argument, of immigration, I think their campaign is verging on the squalid.”
He added: “I am angry at the way the British people are being misled, this is much more important than a general election, this is going to affect people, their livelihoods, their future, for a very long time to come and if they are given honest straightforward facts and they decide to leave, then that is the decision the British people take.
“But if they decide to leave on the basis of inaccurate information, inaccurate information known to be inaccurate, then I regard that as deceitful.”
He also questioned the “rather late conversion” of Mr Johnson to Brexit, saying: “I don’t know whether he had a day trip to Damascus and came back but until the very last moment everyone thought he was in favour of staying.”
Mr Johnson dismissed Sir John’s stinging assessment, insisting it was “not true” that the Leave’s claims about Britain sending £350 million a week to Brussels was “fictitious” or the campaign was “squalid”.
Asked if he believed the attacks against him were part of a plot to “take him out”, he said: “Whether it is or not, I’m rather with (Shadow Chancellor) John McDonnell this morning who says that there is too much of this blue on blue action and what he wants to hear is the arguments and that’s where I am.”
He also insisted it was “absolute nonsense” that he was backing Brexit out of personal leadership ambitions.
“Obviously there is going to be a temptation by one side or the other to try to turn it into a personality-driven conversation. My view about the EU has changed but that is because the EU has changed out of all recognition.”
Mr Johnson claimed the UK’s population could rise “inexorably”, potentially as high as 80 million.