Archbishop Peter Smith, the Catholic Archbishop of Southwark – whose diocese covers all of London south of the Thames – has accused George Osborne of 'ludicrous' scaremongering in the EU referendum.
The Archbishop, talking to Vatican radio, does not explicitly say that he supports Brexit. His line is that he is 'undecided how to vote'. But according to my sources, in private he has been telling 'anyone who cares to listen' that he favours the Out campaign.
'It seems that Peter Smith wants to leave the EU – he's made that very clear,' a Catholic bishop tells me.
Here's an extract from the Catholic Herald report on Smith's interview. It's surprising and refreshing to read such robust criticism of the EU after decades of sycophantic tributes to Brussels by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. My emphases in bold.
'The problem is that the EU has become extremely bureaucratic,' [Archbishop Smith] told Vatican Radio. 'With this real fundamental desire to become more integrated, like a European [United] States – that, many of us find hard to swallow.
'I don’t think that is the right thing to do,' he said.
'The euro hasn’t worked particularly with the poorer countries in Europe – Greece, Portugal, Spain to an extent. It is not working with the euro and all of us are glad that we didn’t go into the euro because of the different economies on the continent of Europe.
'I am very sceptical of the arguments the Chancellor makes. When he does a budget each year very often by the end of the year his forecasts are all over the place.
'When you look at the budgets even after 12 months very often the Chancellor is wrong because you can’t pin the economy down like that because it is so involved with the world economy which goes up and down.'
He added: 'Most people are completely puzzled. They don’t know what the real arguments are and then they hear these scare stories like the Chancellor saying in 14 years’ time we will £4,000 plus less (worse off).
'With great respect to the Chancellor of the Exchequer I think it is ludicrous. He doesn’t know, and we don’t know.'
The interview clears up a mystery. The Bishops of England and Wales had been expected to put out a statement on the referendum drenched in their traditional Europhilia. They didn't do so.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols and his predecessor as Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, put out statements backing Remain – but did so only in a personal capacity. presumably they would have liked their fellow bishops to give a collective nudge to the electorate. This strategy was effectively blocked by Archbishop Smith, who as Metropolitan Archbishop of the province of Southwark has jurisdiction over Arundel & Brighton, Plymouth and Portsmouth dioceses. Incidentally, I gather that he's not the only Eurosceptic Catholic bishop.
And so an English Catholic consensus dating back at least as far as the last European referendum in 1975 has come to an end. Not before time.