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UK minister attacks colleagues for 'scaring' voters in EU debate

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s justice minister accused government colleagues on Tuesday of treating voters like children, saying they were trying to scare them into voting to stay in the European Union with “new bogeymen every night”.

Britain's Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove speaks at a Vote Leave rally in London, Britain April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Michael Gove, a friend of pro-EU Prime Minister David Cameron, used a speech to lampoon “In” campaigners, who include top ministers, deepening a rift in the ruling Conservatives before a June 23 referendum on membership of the 28-nation bloc.

He also attacked a report delivered on Monday by finance minister George Osborne, who said an exit from the EU, or Brexit, could cost Britons thousands of pounds a year and sap funding for public services.

With British voters evenly split over whether to stay in the bloc, the campaign to convince the large numbers of undecideds has heated up, pitting Conservative lawmakers against each other in increasingly personal debates.

“The ‘In’ campaign want us to believe that Britain is beaten and broken ... (It) imagines that the people of this country are mere children, capable of being frightened into obedience by conjuring up new bogeymen every night,” Gove told supporters and journalists at a building overlooking Westminster.

He mocked the remain campaign, led by Cameron, for suggesting fewer foreigners would play in England’s top soccer league, electricity would be cut off and the City of London financial district would lose influence if Britain left the EU.

Gove said, instead, Britain would reclaim control over its borders, financial structures and legal systems.

“If we vote to stay, we are not settling for the status quo ... we are voting to be a hostage locked in the boot of a car driven by others to a place and at a pace that we have no control over,” he said.

Answering questions at the end of his speech, Gove played down any enmity in the Conservative Party, which is deeply split over Britain’s EU membership.

He also presented what he saw as the future if Britain voted to leave - a new start when the country “holds all the cards” in future talks with the EU, with an economy intact.

However, in Gove’s most direct attack on the government, he said Osborne’s report was “an official admission from the ‘In’ campaign that if we do vote to stay in the EU then immigration can continue to increase by hundreds of thousands year on year”.

The government, which wants to reduce immigration to tens of thousands, says the nation can only control its borders if it cooperates with the EU and has warned that thousands of refugees may flock to Britain from France if the country left.

The leader of the opposition Labour Party’s campaign to keep Britain in the EU characterized Gove’s speech as “bluster”.

“Michael Gove wants to wish away reality, but the truth is every credible independent forecaster says Brexit will hurt our economy,” Alan Johnson said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan,; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Tony Jimenez