One of David Cameron's most trusted and senior political allies has plunged the party into a race row by claiming that people who vote for the far-right British National Party (BNP) have "some very legitimate views" on immigration and crime.
In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the shadow Minister for Community Cohesion, fuelled the already highly charged debate about immigration by arguing that it has been "out of control".
Lady Warsi, given a peerage by Mr Cameron so that she could join the Tory front bench, said that the "lack of control" over immigration was making people feel "uneasy". She added that the "face" of some communities was changing overnight because of the sudden influx of people from abroad, adding that "the pace of change unsettles communities".
The Muslim peer's comments, made as the Conservative Party kicks off a crucial party conference in Blackpool, will be interpreted as the clearest signal yet that key figures in the party want Mr Cameron to move to the right and return to what they see as core values.
Mr Cameron's problems were deepened today by a new poll that shows him trailing on nearly every indicator. The Observer survey found 70 per cent of voters wanted an election before next spring – and 41 per cent would vote Labour, compared to 34 per cent supporting the Tories.
Lady Warsi's remarks will expose Tory divisions and shatter attempts by Mr Cameron to shake off its "nasty party" image. Lady Warsi risks infuriating the party leadership by saying the BNP is filling a political vacuum left by the main parties. She criticised the BNP's "race agenda", but said the party's supporters had valid concerns about immigration.
"There are a lot of people out there who are voting for the British National Party and it's those people that we mustn't just write off and say 'well, we won't bother because they are voting BNP or we won't engage with them'. They have some very legitimate views – people who say 'we are concerned about crime and justice in our communities, we are concerned about immigration in our communities'," she said.
Her words were condemned by anti-racist groups who accused her of using "BNP language" and pandering to a far-right agenda. Operation Black Vote (OBV), for which she used to work, said giving credence to the views of BNP supporters was wrong.
"Pandering to racist views peddled by the BNP and bought by BNP voters is grotesque," said Simon Woolley of OBV. "This country would collapse if it wasn't for migrant workers."
Her intervention came as the momentum for a snap general election grew and as Gordon Brown today prepared to review private polling evidence to decide whether to go to the country. Leading Brown allies are expected to attend the council of war. Labour insiders last night insisted no decisions would be taken until a similar meeting next weekend, following the Tory conference.
Mr Brown is believed to have cooled on a 25 October election – partly because it would have to be declared on Tuesday, the day before Mr Cameron's keynote speech to conference. Activists now believe a 1 November election would be more likely.
In the face of polls showing the Conservatives trailing Labour by 11 points, Mr Cameron is expected to face fresh pressure this week to return to core Tory values on tax and crime.
Baroness Warsi suggested that the rapid influx of migrants was threatening community cohesion, changing the face of estates "overnight" and unsettling people who live in Britain.
"Immigration has been out of control. We don't have any idea how many people are here who are unaccounted for, and it's that lack of control and not knowing that makes people feel uneasy – not the fact that somebody of a different colour or a different religion or a different origin is coming into our country – the fact that it is actually not controlled," she said. "The control of immigration impacts upon a cohesive Britain. The pace of change unsettles communities."
With general election talk expected to overshadow the Blackpool conference, the Tory leader said this would be the week that the "Conservative Party fights back and sets out a clear vision for our country".
The Conservatives have intensified campaigning in 75 marginal seats that must be won if the party is to remove Labour from office. The seats include more than 40 held by Labour with tiny majorities and, significantly, a series of Tory-held marginals deemed vulnerable if the current "Brown bounce" is maintained at an early general election.
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