EU referendum: Ex-British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) boss John Longworth is now a martyr to Brexit cause

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Longworth's suspension will appear to the public like an establishment closing ranks (Source: Getty)

As George Osborne and German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble discussed the perils of Brexit on stage at the British Chambers of Commerce's annual conference last week, the organisation's boss was quietly pulling the pin out of a grenade on Sky News.

John Longworth, the mild-mannered head of the BCC, gave an interview from the conference centre in which he said that “the UK would be better off taking a decision to leave the EU".

Longworth made it clear that this was a personal opinion, but given that he was speaking from his own conference just minutes after delivering a key note address, the caveat didn't count for much.

His media advisers seemed surprised at the timing of the revelation, though not by news that their boss was an Outer. They had expected this moment.

Whether Longworth expected to be booted from his post is another matter, and yet just 24 hours after Schaeuble had told the BCC's members that he would cry if Britain left the EU, the group's boss was suspended.

Downing Street has been forced to deny that it applied any pressure on the organisation, though friends of Longworth claim that's exactly what happened. Boris Johnson has blamed “the agents of Project Fear” - the phrase Brexiteers use to describe the more scare-mongering aspects of the Remain campaign's efforts.

Whether or not Downing Street had anything to do with Longworth's suspension, it's not hard to imagine officials on the phone saying “this wasn't part of the plan".

And yet Longworth had every right to express a personal view. This is a referendum, not a party-political election. Everybody gets a vote on a binary question: remain or leave.

Downing Street will marshall every possible force in support of the Remain camp, from town halls and universities to charities and trade associations – yet for all the institutional views expressed, it will be individuals who cast a vote.

Whatever the ins and outs of Longworth's suspension (and subsequent resignation) it will appear to the public like an establishment closing ranks. It would have been far simpler to recognise the personal capacity in which he chose to speak. Instead, they made a martyr of him – and in doing so they've handed him gift-wrapped to the Leave campaign.

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