DAVID CAMERON has been lambasted after he held a “secret” meeting in Henley days before the EU referendum.
The Prime Minister visited the town on Monday evening to speak about the importance of remaining in the European Union but was accused of “preaching to the choir” after addressing a select group of Conservative Party members and their guests at Phyllis Court Club.
Among the 100 people at the event were Henley MP John Howell, Mayor Julian Brookes, Deputy Mayor Will Hamilton and former Henley party chairman Peter Hopkins.
But members of the public and the Henley Standard were prevented from attending after being told it was a “by invitation only” event.
Mr Cameron arrived at the private members’ club with a full police escort at about 5.30pm. He had been due to appear at the town hall at 6.30pm but the time and venue were changed during the afternoon.
Security guards at Phyllis Court turned public and press away from the club, while some people waited outside the town hall as they were unaware of the change. Others took to social media to express their disappointment and anger at not being able to attend.
The Henley Standard contacted 10 Downing Street on Monday afternoon and was told the visit had been organised by the Remain campaign. We then contacted Conservatives In and Britain Stronger in Europe to ask why the media were not allowed to attend but did not receive a response.
Councillor Hamilton said he had “tried everything” to allow the newspaper to attend but had been told by the Prime Minister’s office that local press would not be permitted. He said: “The press was not barred from anything, it was a security issue. The only reason we had to move the venue was the tweets and that was out of our hands. I would have loved to have done it in the town hall with 300 or 400 people but the reality is when it’s the Prime Minister you have to do what they tell you.”
After details of the visit leaked on social media, local politicians and residents criticised the decision to hold the meeting in private.
On Twitter, town councillor Kellie Hinton, of Henley Residents’ Group, said: “David Cameron will now be at Phyllis Court today, not Henley town hall. Why go to a civic hall when you can go to a private members club, eh?”
Later, she wrote: “I won’t be seeing the PM. I wasn’t told properly about his visit and his presence in our beautiful town makes me cringe.”
Fellow HRG councillor Ian Reissmann added: “Why is Cameron’s visit a secret? Maybe the Remain camp thinks the best thing he can do is to keep quiet?”
Paula Isaac, former chairwoman of Gainsborough Residents’ Association, tweeted the Prime Minister directly, asking: “Why did you choose to hide at Phyllis Court this evening rather than give a public speech in Henley town hall? How non-transparent.”
Donna Crook, an anti-cuts campaigner, said: “Why are you not at the town hall where ordinary people can see you instead of at Phyllis Court Club?”
David Eggleton, another HRG councillor, said: “A lot of people in the town were not very happy. The issue they were discussing involves everybody, it’s not just a party issue.
“The event should have been open to everybody so people don’t feel isolated. I don’t think they have done themselves any favours at all.”
Cllr Reissmann said: “We are all interested in this important decision and it seems like a missed opportunity to open up the debate.
“The meeting was kept secret from me and many others and putting it away in a private club looks wrong.
“I appreciate the security concerns but the Prime Minister and other politicians seem increasingly reluctant to attend public events nowadays. They should be part of the debate and people should be able to listen to their answers.”
Cllr Hinton said: “I fully understand that this was a Conservative members’ meeting. What I don’t understand is that if some people who are not members of the Conservatives were invited, why wasn’t that extended and if it was originally meant to be held in the town hall why weren’t all councillors at least informed?
“The EU referendum is relevant to us all and that’s why people should have been able to go.”
Lorraine Hillier, a Conservative town councillor who attended the event, said: “This was a meeting about the EU debate and of public concern. I feel very strongly that it should have been held in public.
“The town hall would have been a more fitting venue. People have different viewpoints on Europe but they would have been respectful and listened.
“It’s a matter of great public interest so close to the referendum and people rely on the press being able to get the words to them.”
Fellow Conservative town councillor Simon Smith, who was invited to the event but decided not to attend, said: “I can understand why people are frustrated but I can also understand in some respects why they didn’t want to make it a spectacle.
“If it had been public knowledge you would have had people there who don’t care about the referendum and wanted to make it a political event, which it wasn’t.
“I know a lot of people would have liked to hear what the Prime Minister had to say to help make their decision and maybe it should have been thought out better. They should have invited the press in some form so it could have been reported properly.”
South Oxfordshire District Council chairman Paul Harrison, an invited guest, said: “I know exactly the reason why the press weren’t invited — the focus groups for the Remain campaign don’t see him [Mr Cameron] as a vote winner.
“They see the biggest danger is from Labour voters so it makes sense for them to keep David Cameron under wraps and let Labour campaigners do the running.”
He said that he had asked David Cameron why, if it was so dangerous to leave the EU, did call the referendum.
“He spoke for about 10 minutes on his reasons,” said Councillor Harrison. “Most of the people invited were in the ‘In’ camp. There were a few Eurosceptics but he was preaching to the choir.”
As Mr Cameron spoke, a group of Leave supporters erected banners on the other side the river and were visible from Phyllis Court. Among them was former mayor Ken Arlett, chairman of the Henley UKIP.
Mr Arlett, of Elizabeth Road, said: “It was just to say to David Cameron that there are two sides to this argument and it would have been nice if we could have come along to listen to what he had to say and ask some questions.
“I don’t think David Cameron likes standing up in front of people and answering questions.”
At the meeting, Mr Cameron was introduced by Mr Howell and spoke to guests about the benefits of staying in Europe before taking questions. He also posed for pictures outside before leaving.
Mr Howell said the event had been organised by the Conservative Party’s In campaign and he was not responsible for the invitations.
He said it was “fictitious” that some residents were frustrated at not being allowed to attend and praised the Prime Minister for “a very good meeting”.
Cllr Hamilton said: “He was very eloquent and gave a brilliant performance. He was very well rehearsed, as you would expect, and it was amazing to see the Prime Minister so close.
“For him to fit us in his schedule was great. We have been waiting a long time for him to come here.”
Councillor David Nimmo Smith, a Conservative town, district and county councillor who was also present, said: “The Prime Minister put forward, in an extremely good way, the reasons Britain should stay in Europe.
“I was one of a number of people to be invited but it wasn’t just a Conservative event, there were Liberal Democrats there as well.
“I can understand the frustrations but I wasn’t part of organising it and it was a private meeting.”
Earlier in the day, Brexit campaigner and former Henley MP Boris Johnson visited the town on the Leave campaign bus and stopped at the station to talk to passers-by.
The Mayor told a town council meeting on Tuesday that police had vetoed use of the town hall for Mr Cameron’s event “for security reasons”.
Ginette Camps-Walsh, Conservatives In co-ordinator for the Henley constituency, declined to comment.