Fresh tensions between the UK’s two rival Brexit referendum campaigns have emerged after the defection of a senior ‘ground campaign’ chief.
Richard Murphy, the Ground Campaign Director of Vote Leave, parted ways with the group in an alleged row over claims the group wanted to focus on digital rather than ‘on the ground’ campaigning and leafleting.
One source claimed that he was now in contact withrival Leave.eu campaign, which is bankrolled by UKIP donor Arron Banks and has a network of UKIP activists nationwide.
Mr Murphy, who was also the Head of Field Operations and Regional Campaigning, was hired by Vote Leave after spending 18 years as a campaign strategist for the Conservative Party, rising to become its Head of Field Campaigning.
But he left the Brexit group after an alleged disagreement over strategy with its Campaign Director Dominic Cummings and digital consultant Andrew Whitehurst, HuffPost UK has been told.
It is claimed that Mr Murphy disagreed with what he viewed as a strategy by Vote Leave chiefs to focus on digital campaigning in the short term, before moving to the ‘ground war’ later.
Vote Leave’s latest recruit and star hire, Theresa May’s former special adviser Stephen Parkinson, last week sent out an email describing himself as ‘Ground Campaign Director’ and appears to have replaced Mr Murphy.
The extent of ‘ground war’ operations could have a direct impact on which campaign is designated the official ‘Leave’ campaign by the Electoral Commission for the EU referendum, which is due to be held before the end of 2017.
One of the watchdog’s five criteria for deciding which is the ‘lead’ campaign – and therefore entitled to huge exposure and legal status – is “the applicant’s organisational capacity to represent those campaigning for the outcome”.
This is interpreted by some as having to prove a strong ground operation in the regions of the UK, rather than a digital operation run from an HQ.
Leave.eu has come under fire from some Eurosceptics for being mainly digitally driven and its new link with Mr Murphy signals that it views the ground war as crucial in the battle against the In campaign.
The Leave.eu campaign failed to comment, but one Vote Leave source insisted that Mr Murphy had not joined the rival camp.
A spokesman for Vote Leave told HuffPost: “Richard Murphy has left the campaign. We wish him well.”
But the campaign is understood to be in the process of hiring 11 regional ground campaign directors, in charge of marshalling leafleting and other operations.
One source denied that digital campaigning would be at the expense of more traditional approaches and said that it saw ground campaign as crucial and had lots of staff with campaign experience.
Former Cabinet minister Alan Johnson is set to launch Labour’s own ‘In’ campaign on Tuesday.