Impact on EU referendum uncertain after Cox slaying

Gregory Katz

London — It’s not yet clear how the killing of a Labour Party lawmaker who campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union will affect next week’s referendum, but what is certain is that her death will be a turning point in what has been an often vitriolic battle over the country’s future.

The referendum campaign was abruptly halted following the slaying of 41-year-old Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed to death Thursday on the streets of her small-town constituency.

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An idealistic politician who had praised the contribution of immigrants to Britain and championed the cause of war-scarred Syrian refugees, Cox had strongly favored the “remain” campaign. The 52-year-old man arrested for her killing has suspected ties to white supremacist, neo-Nazi groups.

“It’s obviously a crisis moment, it changes things,” Robert Worcester, founder of the Ipsos MORI polling firm said of the potential impact on Thursday’s vote on whether Britain should remain in the EU or leave the 28-nation bloc. “If one of them handles it badly, the backlash would be ferocious,” he said.

Worcester, a veteran pollster with decades of experience, said a tragedy like the killing of Cox just one week before a crucial vote is rare and could have unpredictable consequences on the public mood.

“I don’t think the assassination itself will impact the vote, it’s what they do with it,” he said of the two sides in what has been a bitter and divisive campaign. “I think they will both express sadness, sadness that this would happen in this country, which is not a gun country, not a place where guns are carried.”

The killing has silenced normally voluble analysts, academics and betting parlor managers who are reluctant to speculate on how the referendum vote may be impacted by the bloodshed.

Mark Dowding, a manager at BlueBay Asset Management, which oversees $58 billion in funds, said his company had taken a “short” position on the British pound — in effect betting it would go down, as is expected if Britain votes to leave the EU — but has changed course because of the assassination.

“I think this can have a significant impact on the vote,” he said.

The rival camps have not yet said when the referendum campaign will resume. It had taken a decidedly nasty turn in the days before the shooting as the “leave” side hammered home what it maintains are the risks of higher rates of immigration into Britain.

In the days before the shooting it appeared the “leave” campaign’s focus on immigration might be paying dividends.

But with the slaying of Cox, who had sought more help for Syrian refugees victimized by the civil war, some commentators are now contending divisive “leave” campaign tactics helped create a climate in which a British lawmaker was killed for the first time in a quarter century.