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Big business backs Cameron’s push to keep Britain in the EU

The bosses of about half of Britain's 100 biggest companies are to sign a letter backing David Cameron in his fight to keep the country in the EU ahead of a referendum in June that will shape the future of the UK.

As opposition within the ruling Conservative party mounted, Downing Street rallied support from corporate leaders at companies including Shell, BAE Systems, BT and Rio Tinto, who will argue in the letter that Britain is "stronger, safer and better off" in a reformed EU.

The barrage of business support will come as some relief to Mr Cameron after London mayor Boris Johnson on Sunday became the highest-profile defector within the Conservative party to declare his support for a campaign for a British exit which, if successful, could topple the prime minister.

The London mayor joins six cabinet ministers, including Mr Cameron's friend Michael Gove, in the Out camp, with speculation that the number of Conservative party MPs opposing the prime minister was moving towards 150.

As Mr Cameron tried to defend the EU deal that he secured in Brussels, Downing Street officials were trying to finalise one of the biggest ever pro-European shows of strength by the business community.

A draft letter being circulated to business leaders said that: "Following the prime minister's renegotiation we believe that Britain is better off staying in a reformed EU."

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The letter, to be published on Tuesday, was said to have the support of about 50 chairmen and chief executives of FTSE 100 companies. Most would sign on behalf of their companies, others in a personal capacity. The letter was also expected to be signed by the bosses of smaller companies.

There was, however, some boardroom resistance to a section that read: "We believe that leaving the EU would deter investment and threaten jobs." Some company chiefs feared that the warning would upset trade unions.

Some consumer-facing companies, including Tesco and J Sainsbury, did not want to be involved in the letter, amid fears that it could antagonise customers, although Virgin and HSBC were expected to sign.

Mr Johnson, a highly effective campaigner, said that his decision was "agonisingly difficult". He said that Mr Cameron had done "fantastically well" in securing some EU reforms last week but they were not enough.

The London mayor said that the EU was "out of proper democratic control".

"I don't think anyone can realistically claim this is a fundamental reform of the EU or of the British relationship with the EU," he said.

Earlier, Mr Cameron warned Britain not to take "a step into the dark" in the referendum.

"If Britain were to leave the EU that might give you a feeling of sovereignty but you have got to ask yourself: is it real?"

"Would you have the power to help businesses and make sure they weren't discriminated against in Europe? No you wouldn't. Would you have the power to insist that European countries share with us their border information so we know what terrorists and criminals are doing in Europe? No you wouldn't."

Mr Cameron's fury over Mr Johnson's decision was compounded when Mr Johnson relayed his EU decision by text. The prime minister fulminated that the mayor appeared to be putting his political ambition to lead the Conservative party ahead of the interests of London as a financial centre, a claim denied by Mr Johnson.

Mr Cameron's anger was shared by Lord Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, who said: "If he were to be successful in his ambition to cut us off from Europe, the flags would fly in Frankfurt and Paris in his honour."

Mr Johnson, whose family are staunchly pro-EU, admitted that he had endured "a huge amount of heartache" in reaching his decision and hinted that he would not seek to be the frontman of the Brexit campaign.

"I won't take part in TV debates against other members of my party," he said.