The fight over Britain’s EU membership almost turned into a naval battle on Wednesday morning, as rival boats carrying Nigel Farage and Sir Bob Geldof clashed on the river Thames.
Mr Farage’s campaign group Leave.EU had organised a “flotilla of over 30 fishing boats” to protest against the effect of quotas on the fishing industry.
However, their journey up the Thames was interrupted by Sir Bob, the singer and activist, whose Remain boat blared out songs including “The In Crowd” and Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now”. Mr Farage’s vessel responded by firing its hose at the boat, which also had former London mayor Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel on board.
Greenpeace pointed out that one of the boats in Mr Farage’s flotilla had been involved in a £63m fraud involving landing undeclared fish in Scotland. The vessel is still partly owned by Ernest Simpson, who was fined for his role in the fraud.
Some of the Leave. EU vessels continued towards Westminster, where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn raised the issue of fisheries in prime minister’s questions.
David Cameron defended the EU’s common fisheries policies, saying that the UK exported £1bn a year in fish to the single market. “There’s no way we can get a better deal on the outside than the one we have on the inside.”
Mr Farage contrasted Britain’s position with that of Norway, “who control all fishing stocks up to 200 miles within the North Sea and have a booming commercial and angling tourism industry”.
The publicity stunt brought brief respite to the referendum campaign, which has been marked by bitter words on both sides. Remain campaigners said Mr Farage had shown a “failure to speak up for fishermen in the European Parliament”, saying he attended only one of 42 meetings of the fishing committee. Ukip in turn accused Sir Bob of “laughing at poor people”.
About a dozen Leave boats loitered in the Thames outside the Palace of Westminster, along with the large Remain boat and several Remain dinghies.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Elizabeth Grant, a Leave supporter watching from Westminster Bridge. “It’s people from outside London, having the chance to have their say. I don’t care what the tourists think.”
Mats Rooijakkers, a tourist from the Netherlands, said he could not imagine a similar protest in his home country, adding: “The Dutch are less patriotic than the English.”