Cameron pleads with London Mayor Johnson to back EU membership

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London (AFP)

Prime Minister David Cameron made a last-ditch appeal to charismatic London Mayor Boris Johnson Sunday to support Britain staying in the EU as battlelines hardened ahead of a June 23 membership referendum.

Cameron used an interview with the BBC to make a direct appeal to Johnson, who is expected to declare his position later Sunday in a move which could transform the out campaign if he backs them.

The British prime minister, who wants to stay in the European Union, secured a deal late Friday to reset Britain's ties with the 28-nation bloc after marathon talks in Brussels.

He then flew straight back to London to meet his cabinet and announce the date of the referendum Saturday.

"I would say to Boris what I say to everybody else, which is we'll be safer, we'll be stronger, we'll be better off inside the EU," Cameron said.

"I think the prospect of linking arms with Nigel Farage and George Galloway and taking a leap into the dark is the wrong step for our country."

Farage, the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, and Galloway, a veteran left-winger and former MP, are both polarising figures backing the campaign to leave the European Union.

Johnson, a mop-haired Oxford University contemporary of Cameron who is nicknamed "BoJo", is known for his witty soundbites and has a high public profile.

He is one of the favourites to succeed Cameron, whose second term in office expires in 2020 and has said he will not serve a third.

Six cabinet ministers have come out in favour of leaving the bloc so far.

Cameron also used the interview to press arguments about safety and patriotism which are likely to feature prominently in the campaign to remain in the EU.

He emphasised repeatedly that leaving the EU would be a "leap in the dark", adding: "I love this country so much… that's what this is about".