LONDON — The campaign in Europe’s most significant vote in decades has been thrown into disarray by the assassination of a liberal lawmaker in Britain.
Both sides of the debate have suspended their campaigns until Monday in the wake of the brutal murder of pro-European Union politician Jo Cox, which could upend the outcome of the entire referendum, to be voted on June 23.
The suspected gunman had mental-health issues as well as links to neo-Nazi and anti-immigration groups, according to a white-supremacist organization, to which he once subscribed, and the U.S. civil-rights watchdog the Southern Poverty Law Center. Police confirmed counterterrorism officers were investigating any relationship to hate groups.
Two witnesses said the suspected attacker, Thomas Mair, had shouted “Britain first!” as he kicked, stabbed and then fatally shot the mother of two young children. Other witnesses said they had not heard the political slogan.
Cox’s final public appearance had been a talk given to schoolchildren about the value of migrants and refugees coming to Britain.
Next Thursday, British voters will decide whether to quit the European Union at the culmination of a bitter campaign that has become increasingly dominated by the issue of immigration.
As reports about the suspect’s alleged right-wing political views emerged, the betting market, which had been moving toward a Leave vote for the last week, swung dramatically back in the other direction.
“I think that some of the market move is down to punters believing that it could disadvantage Leave,” Mike Smithson, editor of Political Betting, told The Daily Beast.
On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Jeremy Corby made an unprecedented joint statement from the suburb of Birstall in West Yorkshire, where Cox was murdered.
“It is the well of hatred that killed her,” said Corbyn. “We will not allow those people who spread hatred and poison to divide our society.”
The prime minister asked Britain to come together in her memory. “Where we see hatred, where we find division, where we see intolerance, we must drive it out of our politics,” he said.
Both campaigns are officially suspended, but the cross-party support for Cox, and the condemnation of an alleged far-right attacker, was too much for some anti-European Union campaigners.
A former press adviser to Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), claimed the remarks were an attempt to make political gain. “Cameron and Corbyn poltiicise [sic] the murder of Jo Cox at press conference in Birstill [sic]. Remember, this was a mental health patient,” tweeted Raheem Kassam, who was campaigning alongside Farage for Britain to vote Leave this week.
The Sun and The Daily Express, two newspapers campaigning for Britain to quit the EU, were the only major British papers not to mention the two witnesses’ claims that the murderer had shouted “Britain first” on their front pages.
Instead of this potential political motivation, the Express said it was a “Street Gun Horror” attack while The Sun described the suspect as a “crazed loner” twice on its front page.
The anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation called for the media to treat Mair in the same way they would treat a terror suspect because of the links to extreme right-wing groups.
“We must me consistent in our reporting and challenging of these ideas,” Haras Rafiq, managing director of Quilliam, told The Daily Beast. “Just as we report it when a suspected Islamist jihadi commits an act of violence, when applicable we have to be consistent and report when a suspected far-right supporter commits an act of violence. We are living in a 1930s-style environment where competing ideologies are leading people to violence.”
Just hours before the shooting, Farage unveiled a poster that showed a long snaking line of refugees in Slovenia with the caption “Breaking Point.” The poster was reported to the police for an alleged breach of incitement to racial hatred laws.
Neil Coyle, a Labour member of parliament, was criticized by some social-media users Thursday night when he claimed the Leave campaign was playing with fire. “I just think that they are a very dangerous, and they risk inspiring extremist elements on the hard right in this country.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday also linked the increasingly hostile referendum campaign to the killing. “The exaggerations and radicalization of part of the language do not help to foster an atmosphere of respect,” she said, when asked about Cox’s murder.
Opinion polls suggest that the campaigning about immigration has had a dramatic effect on British voters. The importance of immigration even surpassed the economy as the No. 1 issue for voters, according to poll results published this week.
Under EU rules that guarantee freedom of movement among the member nations, an unlimited number of Europeans are able to work in Britain. If Britain leaves the EU, it can set its own independent border controls.
The Springbok Cyber Newsletter, which said Mair was a former magazine subscriber, has called for Britain to vote Leave because it has been “invaded by millions of ethnically and culturally alien migrants and their descendants, thus threatening our national identity.”
The Springbok Club is an expatriate South African organization whose members say they want Africa to be returned to “civilized rule.”
Neil Hamilton, UKIP’s group leader in the Welsh Assembly, addressed the club in 1998.
As well as his lapsed subscription to the South African magazine, the SPLC has published evidence that Thomas Mair was also a regular supporter of the National Alliance, an American neo-Nazi organization.
Receipts show that he spent more than $600 on purchases from National Vanguard Books, the National Alliance’s publishing arm. The books sent to Thomas Mair’s current address in Birstall included the National Vanguard magazine, a Nazi Party handbook, and a series of manuals that described how to make explosive devices and a homemade pistol.
A recent article on the National Vanguard website claimed immigration had destroyed Britain, which had been “overwhelmed by the third-world invasion because there are already enough nonwhites present to alter the course of elections.”
The National Alliance is described by the SPLC as “explicitly genocidal in its ideology.” Its founder, William Pierce, was an inspiration for Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist who killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing.
The Guardian reported Friday that detectives have also discovered Nazi regalia inside Mair’s house.