As I sat down to write this post, on Thursday morning, there was a week to go until the British referendum on whether to leave the European Union, and a “Leave” vote was looking like a live possibility. Politicians who had endorsed a vote to “Remain” were getting nervous, and the financial markets were gyrating with every new opinion poll. As for the British people—well, until Thursday lunchtime many of them were busy watching the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, which is being held in France. Then, Thursday afternoon, came the shocking news about the brutal murder of a Member of Parliament by a man who, reportedly, shouted “Britain first!”—the name of a far-right organization that is virulently opposed to immigration and to the E.U. The killing took place in Birstall, a small town outside the city of Leeds, in West Yorkshire. The victim, Jo Cox, was a forty-one-year-old mother of two, and a widely respected representative of the opposition Labour Party, which has joined the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, in calling on Britons to reject the Brexit option and vote “Remain.” According to eyewitness reports cited by BBC News and other media organizations, the attacker approached Cox as she was leaving a meeting with constituents, shot her several times, and then stabbed her numerous times as she was lying on the ground bleeding. Following the attack, Cox was airlifted to a hospital, but she died soon after. Police, meanwhile, arrested a suspect—news reports identified him as Tommy Mair, a fifty-two-year-old local handyman. Out of respect for Cox and her family, both sides in the referendum suspended their campaigns for the day. Cameron called Cox’s death “tragedy.” Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, who is the leading politician on the “Leave” side, described it as “horrific.” And Cox’s husband, Brendan Cox, released a statement saying that she would have wanted people “to unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.”
At this stage, not much is known for sure about the attacker’s affiliations or motives. Inevitably, attention is focussing on Britain First, the ultra-nationalist group, which was founded in 2011 and which agitates under the slogan “Taking our country back!” Perhaps best known for its strident opposition to immigration, particularly by Muslims, the group has recently been actively campaigning for a “Leave” vote. On Thursday night, Britain First’s leader, Paul Golding, appeared in a video released by the group. “I don’t think it was one of our supporters,” Golding said. “I hope the person who carried out this heinous crime gets what he deserves.”
Given British law, which severely limits what can be published about a person once he or she has been charged with a crime, it may be some time before the full story behind the murder emerges. But, with the date of the referendum so close, it will hang over the remainder of the campaign, heightening the already elevated uncertainty about the result.
Until just a couple of weeks ago, the consensus at Westminster, and in the City of London, was that the vote, while it might be close, would go in favor of “Remain.” Rather than directly taking on the anti-immigrant sentiment fuelling much of the support for “Leave,” Cameron and George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had sought to scare people into voting “Remain” by arguing that leaving the Union would be an economic disaster. Most observers thought this cynical strategy would work. But, in the past week, a series of polls indicated that the “Leave” side was gaining momentum.