British Chambers of Commerce says support growing for Brexit

LONDON (Reuters) - More British businesses now want to leave the European Union than earlier this year, the British Chambers of Commerce said in a survey on Tuesday, though most of its members want to remain.

A man wears a Vote Leave badge during the launch of the EU referendum Women campaign for Britain, in London, Britain March 8, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

The BCC, one of Britain’s two main employer organisations, said 37 percent of members intend to vote to leave the EU in June’s referendum, based on a poll conducted in early April, up from 30 percent in a poll conducted between Jan. 23 and Feb. 4.

The proportion who want to remain dropped to 54 percent from 60 percent.

“Although a clear majority of the business people we surveyed continue to express a preference to remain in the European Union, the gap between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ has narrowed significantly in recent weeks,” BCC acting director general Adam Marshall said.

BCC members’ support for EU membership exceeds the public’s.

Opinion polls show British voters are roughly evenly split, with one poll from market research company ICM on Monday showing 46 percent of those likely to vote wanted to leave, compared with 44 percent who wished to stay.

The BCC’s online survey of more than 2,000 of its members took place before the publication of a raft of reports from Britain’s finance ministry, the International Monetary Fund and others warning of economic damage if Britain leaves the EU.

In contrast to other surveys suggesting the referendum debate was aggravating an economic slowdown, the BCC said 71 percent of its members found the debate was having no impact on sales and 80 percent reported no impact on investment.

Nearly a third of firms said their growth would be boosted if Britain stayed in the EU, while 16 percent said they would gain if Britain left. Almost half felt EU membership made little difference.

Looking purely at firms which do not sell goods or services to the EU -- a minority of respondents to the BCC survey, but a majority of British businesses overall -- more wanted to leave the EU than to stay, the BCC said.

John Longworth, who had to step down as BCC director general in March after expressing support for Brexit, and now campaigns for a ‘Leave’ vote, said these non-exporting firms were more representative of British business than other BCC members.

“Despite the claims of the pro-EU camp to the contrary, business is not fearful of the referendum or the result,” he said in a statement released by the Vote Leave campaign group.

The BCC has an official neutral stance on EU membership.

The Confederation of British Industry, which mostly represents larger firms than the BCC, says 80 percent of its members want to remain in the EU and that leaving would bring heavy economic costs.

Reporting by David Milliken; Editing by Janet Lawrence