British Prime Minister David Cameron faced accusations of waffling, scaremongering and hypocrisy as he tried to make a case for the country to remain in the European Union during an hour-long television town hall.
The Sky TV program on Thursday was the first major television event of the referendum campaign and it came as support for Britain to leave the EU is rising. Two recent surveys put Vote Leave slightly ahead, reversing a trend that had seen the Britain Stronger in Europe, or Remain, side ahead.
Mr. Cameron took questions from a studio audience, with many grilling the Prime Minister on the tone of the referendum campaign, rising immigration, jobs and soaring house prices.
"I'm an English literature student and I know waffling when I see it," one audience member, Soraya Bouazzaoui, told Mr. Cameron at one point.
Another questioner, James Dexter, asked: "Do you regret the personal damage that your scaremongering campaign has done to your reputation and legacy?"
Mr. Cameron stuck mainly to economic themes in answering almost every question, suggesting that leaving the EU would damage the country's economy, raise prices and result in job losses.
"I am genuinely worried about what would happen if we leave," he told the audience, adding later: "Let us not roll the dice on our future."
But during a question session with Sky TV journalist Faisal Islam, Mr. Cameron acknowledged the EU can be frustrating at times. "Yes, of course there are frustrations. Sometimes this organization drives me crazy."
The Remain campaign repeatedly cites a wide range of economists, think tanks and international organizations that have said the country's economy would be damaged if it left the EU. The Vote Leave campaign has focused mainly on immigration, saying an unrestricted flood of migrants from the EU have taken away jobs and left the country's borders insecure.
For weeks, the Remain side held a lead in the polls for the June 23 vote, and betting shops had put the odds of the country staying in the EU at around 80 per cent. But in the past week, the tide has shifted somewhat and those odds have begun to fall. The changing fortunes have taken a toll on the value of the British pound, which has fallen this week amid polls showing support for Brexit rising.
During Thursday's television program, Mr. Cameron cited Britain's trade advantages by staying in the EU, saying it gives the country access to the largest market in the world. Pulling out, he said, would result in tariffs on British goods going to the EU and the need to negotiate trade deals around the world. He mentioned the Canada-EU trade deal several times, saying it had taken seven years to negotiate and it is still not as good as what Britain has by being a member of the EU. The Canadian deal was announced in 2013 but has yet to be approved by the European Parliament or member countries.
If Britain left the EU, "it would take a decade to negotiate a new arrangement with the EU," Mr. Cameron said.
Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, who supports the Vote Leave campaign, said after the program that Mr. Cameron had not addressed the immigration issue.
"I think it was very difficult for him to make any inroads on immigration, for example; quite clearly it's just impossible to control immigration from the EU while we remain in it," Ms. Leadsom said. She also dismissed the range of economic reports that have raised fears about trade and the economy under Brexit.
"It simply isn't true to say that we need to be in the single market in order to trade with the world," she said. She pointed out that most of the world's countries are outside of the EU "and they are trading very happily."
"The economic argument has not been made at all this evening," she added.
Michael Gove, a leading figure on the Vote Leave side, will face a similar grilling from a studio audience on Friday.