Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party chairman, was accused of scoring a spectacular own goal last night in a speech about the British National Party, provoking calls from some Tory MPs for David Cameron to move her in a summer reshuffle.
Senior Conservatives joined Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians in criticising Lady Warsi after she claimed that a Yes vote in the referendum on electoral reform would boost the prospects of the BNP. They pointed out that the BNP was on the same side as the Tories in opposing a switch to the alternative vote (AV) in the 5 May referendum.
Her critics accused her of giving the BNP credibility and publicity – the very things she argued that AV would provide for the far-right party. One senior Tory MP said: "It looks as though she didn't think it through. There's a growing feeling that she should be moved to a job as a departmental minister."
Tory MPs noted that yesterday's remarks were criticised by some Muslim groups, among whom Lady Warsi is hoping to build support for her party. She is the first Muslim woman to sit in the Cabinet.
Speaking in London's East End, near where anti-fascists fought a march by Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in 1936, Lady Warsi argued that a switch to AV would bring "a real risk that candidates would pander to extremists", with "more inflammatory campaigns, and more policies which appeal to people's worst instincts rather that to the values of the mainstream".
Supporters of AV were "backing a system which rewards extremism and gives oxygen to extremist groups", she claimed. It could also give parties like the BNP more legitimacy and "more power to those people – fringe voters, Monster Raving Loonies, and yes, fascists – who are voting for precisely the kind of extreme policies most people want to marginalise". Lady Warsi added: "It means that bigots will be given more power in our politics and extremists will look to gain more influence over mainstream parties." She conceded the BNP was in the same camp as the Tories but claimed that was only because the group wanted full-scale proportional representation.
The backlash against the Tory chairman came a day after the battle for the 5 May referendum took off when Ed Miliband joined Liberal Democrats and Greens in a cross-party push for a Yes vote. Mr Cameron, accused by some Tories of not campaigning hard enough for a No vote, told his MPs last night that he would make one speech each week opposing AV until the referendum.
Paul Sinclair, director of communications for the Yes to AV campaign, said: "The question Baroness Warsi has got to answer is: if AV is so good for fascists, why is the BNP campaigning along with her for a No vote? A number of groups who are the victims of the BNP are enthusiastic supporters of the Yes campaign."
Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, accused Lady Warsi of irresponsible scaremongering. "The very fact that the BNP opposes AV shows just how desperate her argument has become," he said. "None of the MPs or campaigners I have spoken to on either side of the AV debate have any intention of 'pandering' to extremists."
Baroness (Kishwer) Falkner, a Liberal Democrat peer, said: "Under AV, no one can get elected unless the majority of people support them which quite obviously makes it harder, not easier, for extremist parties. That's exactly why the BNP are campaigning for a No vote."
Farooq Murad, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "AV means all voters will have a stronger say in our elections, and all politicians will have to... secure majority support from the communities they seek to represent. The BNP is campaigning for a No vote because it knows what a Yes vote means – that racists who won't reach out have no future."