A little bit of protest will do the EU referendum debate good

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The two students took the opportunity to interrupt David Cameron's speech (Source: Getty)

Protest can take many forms. It can be a determined, individual act of resistance or a million-person march through the streets. Anger can mix with optimism, frustration can combine with a sense of purpose.

This year, London has witnessed its fair share of marches, occup­ations, peaceful rallies and violent encounters. What we hadn’t witnessed, until yesterday, was a particular kind of polite protest that involved registering a fake company, putting on a suit, collecting appropriate accreditation and sitting quietly at the back of the CBI annual conference.

Phil Sheppard and Peter Lyon, both 19 and assisted by the Vote Leave campaign, waited until the Prime Minister was mid-speech before standing up, unfurling a banner and chanting “CBI – Voice of Brussels.”

It wasn’t an angry chant, by the way. Not like the chants of “scum” that met anyone attempting to go into the recent Tory party conference. No, these students sounded more like Gregorian monks as they maintained their protest in the face of a rather un­sporting Prime Minister who told them to stop making fools of themselves.

Inter­viewed after the stunt, the pro-Brexit teens grinned as they revealed that they’d gained access by “pretending to be business­men” with one confessing the experience had been “the most terrifying thing I’ve done in my life”.

Good for them. This was a well-planned protest. It was harmless, perfectly respectful and had the advantage of delivering a serious message.

The CBI would dispute the charge that it’s the voice of Brussels, but it cannot dispute the observation that businesses – big and small – are divided on the issue of EU membership. Emphasising that division in the minds of the public is a central component of the Eurosceptic campaign groups.

Those behind the campaign for Britain to remain a member dismissed the students’ protest as “grubby” and said that Vote Leave “have serious questions to answer”. Lighten up, guys.

If this referendum is to have any chance of energising the country, it’s going to require more than set-piece campaign events and the PM giving speeches to busin­ess leaders. Throwing in some student-style stunts and poking fun at the establishment should absolutely be a part of it. Besides, it’s nice to see students protesting without their faces being covered by those ubiquitous Guy Fawkes masks.

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