John Major and Michael Howard refused to respond to Labour demands that they publicly denounce Mr Churchill and withdraw the Conservative whip. Mr Howard, who was moved to the Home Office in last week's reshuffle, sent out a coded signal of disagreement.
'We have a tremendous tendency to underplay our successes,' he said. 'But compared with the rest of the world, the record of race relations in this country is extremely good.
'I condemn any intervention which could have the effect of damaging race relations.'
Mr Major's office later said that he fully endorsed Mr Howard's comments.
The row began on Friday night when Mr Churchill told a meeting of Bolton Conservatives: 'We must call a halt to the relentless flow of immigrants to this country, especially from the Indian sub-continent. The population of many of our Northern cities is now well over 50 per cent immigrant, and Muslims claim there are now more than two million of their co-religionists in Britain.'
Yesterday Mr Churchill was as much an object of ridicule as anger. The Home Office, Labour MPs, and ethnic minority leaders all emphasised that he had got his facts wrong - particularly his claim that immigrations made up half of the population of Bradford and Leeds, when the real figures were about 15 per cent.
No city in Britain has an immigrant population of more than 50 per cent. The 1991 census showed that only 6 per cent of the population comes from the ethnic minorities. Of these, 75 per cent have British nationality and 45 per cent were born in this country. In West Yorkshire, which includes Leeds and Bradford people of non-British origin, ethnic minorities make up just 8 per cent of the population.
Immigration laws are now so tight that it is all but impossible for a new Indian family to come to Britain. Of the total of 50,900 immigrants in the 12 months to June 1992, 13,600 were from the sub- continent. Almost all of these, the Home Office said, were the partners or relatives of British citizens.
Mr Churchill's Davyhulme constituency in south Manchester is not noted for its large ethnic minority community. It is made up of Sale, a largely middle-class suburb of Manchester, and the white, working-class pockets of Urmston and Partington.
Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, said Mr Churchill was 'extremely foolish and profoundly ignorant' and claimed that he had brought unnecessary worry to a lot of people.
The attention and criticism sparked by one passage in a speech on crime by a relatively obscure backbencher, whose only claim to fame is his grandfather, indicated that mainstream politicians and ethnic leaders are concerned about the racial violence of the Continent spreading to Britain.
Ishtiaq Ahmed, spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques, said Mr Churchill was playing into the hands of racist elements and parties.
Mr Churchill denied that he was being inflammatory. 'What is very disturbing is how any mention, even obliquely, of the question of immigration by someone in politics immediately attracts the sort of criticism that has been levelled at my remarks,' he said.
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