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The House of Commons will pay tribute on Monday to the Labour MP Jo Cox, who was killed last week, as MPs put on a display of cross-party unity in defence of democracy.
Brendan Cox, the former MP’s husband, and their two children meanwhile conducted their own private vigil. “Jo loved camping,” Mr Cox tweeted on Sunday. “Last night the kids and I camped in her memory and remembered the last time we were all woken by the dawn chorus.”
Away from the private grief and the sombre mood at Westminster, politicians and financial markets are making cold calculations about how the murder of Cox in her Yorkshire constituency last Thursday will affect Britain’s biggest political decision for a generation.
“We had momentum until this terrible tragedy,” said Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, confirming that the suspension of campaigning after Cox’s death had halted the surge towards a Leave vote.
Financial markets responded to the grim news last week by recording a sharp rise in sterling, reflecting the belief that a Remain vote was now more likely. Opinion polls released at the weekend suggested these instincts were correct, all of them showing a swing towards Remain, although much of the polling groundwork was carried out before Cox’s death.
A Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday showed the Remain camp moving into a 45-42 point lead; YouGov in the Sunday Times gave Remain a 44-43 lead; while Opinium in the Observer put the two sides level on 44 each — as does the FT’s poll of polls.
Cox was a supporter of Remain and a campaigner for refugees. Thomas Mair, her alleged killer, told a courtroom on Saturday that his name was “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. But the political ramifications of her murder are complex and hard to distil.
The one area of consensus on both sides of the debate was that the suspension of the campaign helped Remain, which had started to look increasingly panicky in recent days as polls swung towards Leave.
George Osborne, the chancellor, was ridiculed last week by his opponents for threatening an emergency “punishment Budget” to inflict more austerity on the country if it voted for a British exit from the EU. The pause in the campaign allowed Mr Osborne and David Cameron, the prime minister, to regroup and to return to the fray with a more measured tone.
On Sunday, Mr Cameron tweeted a link to Cox’s final article in support of Britain’s EU membership, while the Remain campaign has stepped up its criticism of the strident anti-immigration message adopted by some in the Leave camp.
Mr Cameron has focused on a poster unveiled last week by Mr Farage that showed a crowd of desperate refugees on the Croatia/Slovenia border under the headline “Breaking Point”.
“Are we going to choose Nigel Farage’s vision — one which takes Britain backwards, divides rather than unites, and questions the motives of anyone who takes a different view?” Mr Cameron said in the Sunday Telegraph.
Michael Gove, the Eurosceptic justice minister, admitted he had “shuddered” when he saw the poster. Mr Farage replied that the official Leave campaign, to which Mr Gove belongs, had put out “very strong posters” suggesting Turkey was about to join the EU, with millions of migrants heading for Britain.
The squabbling between the rival wings of the Brexit campaign suggested a squeamishness over some of the language and a feeling that the immigration rhetoric may have gone too far.
Anthony Wells, of the pollsters YouGov, said the swing towards Remain was part of a long-awaited trend in which voters “move back to the status quo option”. Polls were picking this up before Cox’s murder, he added.
But behind the headline numbers, said Mr Wells, YouGov had found a big rise in the number of people who fear they will be worse off as the result of a British exit — up to 33 per cent from 23 per cent a fortnight ago. That suggests Mr Osborne’s ridiculed “Brexit Budget” may have had some resonance, vindicating the chancellor’s view that many voters are only now seriously tuning into the debate.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university, said he believed the poll movements were not surprising: “We are expecting there to be a swing towards Remain at some point,” he said.
However, he thought Cox’s death would have an impact on the EU result that was “something approximating to zero”, since people who agonised about the nature and implications of social discourse on society were not the kind of swing voters who would determine the outcome.
Mr Cameron’s team are not so sure but both sides accept Thursday’s vote remains too close to call. The impact of Cox’s tragic death on the result will be the subject of fierce debate for years to come.
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