A shift to the Right to counter the Ukip threat would be a disastrous mistake, Conservative modernisers warned David Cameron on Sunday night after the opening of the Tory conference was wrecked by the defection of a second MP to Nigel Farage’s party.
Party chiefs reacted with undisguised fury at the decision of Mark Reckless to jump ship to Ukip, with Tory chairman Grant Shapps lambasting him for “lying” when he made pledges of loyalty to the Prime Minister.
His dramatic departure – following Douglas Carswell, who is set to become the first MP to be elected in Ukip colours in a by-election next month – provoked fresh turmoil in Tory ranks over how to respond to the anti-European Union party.
David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary, warned the party had shifted from “traditional Conservative principles” and had to present policies which are “attractive to the wider Conservative family”.
But the former minister Damian Green told a fringe meeting on Sunday night: “We must at all costs and at all times resist the temptation to become Ukip-lite.
Tory MPs who want to leave the EU
Tory MPs who want to leave the EU
1/4 Mark Reckless
MP for Rochester and Strood. Will tell his constituents he will vote “out” in 2017 no matter what concessions David Cameron wins from EU. Has called for “level playing field” referendum with no recommendation from Mr Cameron on how people should vote
2/4 David Nuttall
MP for Bury North. Has said: “I am fed up with this country being told what to do by other countries in the EU, which is why I believe we should leave the EU and instead have free trade agreements with EU countries.”
3/4 Heather Wheeler
MP for Derbyshire South. She has said: “I have decided enough is enough and that Britain really is better off out. We should be part of a free trade association, not a political union.”
4/4 Gordon Henderson
MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. He has said: “My reason for wanting to leave the EU is simple. Britain needs to retain control of its own destiny if it is to remain a sovereign nation.”
“The way to defeat Ukip is to explain why they are wrong, not to hint that they might be right. If the Conservatives Party skitters towards Ukip, it strengthens Ukip.”
Mr Green denounced Ukip as a party which “dislikes modern Britain” and wants to “stop the world so Britain can get off”. He said: “That way, the Farage way, will leave Britain friendless, poorer, inward-looking, and less stable.”
The Stourbridge MP, Margot James, a member of the Downing Street policy unit, told The Independent: “The British public aren’t swayed by rightwards lurches or leftwards lurches. Most people are in the centre ground of politics and that is where we should remain.”
She said: “I realise some people get jumpy about polls and other events, but it’s doubly important to maintain our focus.”
The MP for Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, tweeted: “The Conservative Party won’t gain extra support by shifting right but millions of centre right voters would move elsewhere, myself included.”
The Conservative Party won't gain extra support by shifting right but millions of centre right voters would move elsewhere, myself included— Sarah Wollaston MP (@drwollastonmp) September 27, 2014
Mr Shapps opened the conference with a scathing attack on Mr Reckless, claiming the MP had “lied and lied and lied again” to Tory supporters, activists and donors.
The Tory chairman said: “Last week he insisted he would be campaigning for an outright Conservative majority. Two days ago, he was busy leaving phone messages claiming he was enthusiastic about joining us to campaign... here in Birmingham today.”
Senior Conservatives have privately written off their chances in the Clacton by-election in Essex on October 9 caused by Mr Carswell’s defection.
But they are determined to mount a huge effort in the by-election triggered by Mr Reckless departure to Ukip. He won the Kent constituency of Rochester and Strood for the Tories with a majority of nearly 10,000 at the last election.
The contest is likely to take place in November, giving the party time to devote heavy resources to the campaign in an effort to halt the Ukip bandwagon.
Mr Reckless told the BBC on Sunday: “I want to keep my word to my voters here and that’s why I’ve done what I’ve done. I believe Ukip are the agents of change and I’m going to give my voters a say in the byelection.”
In his farewell conference speech, William Hague, who is stepping down as an MP next year, said only a Conservative government would give the public a vote on EU membership.
“We will go on fighting to hold that referendum and win that fight while those who have joined Ukip sit on the sidelines and do precisely nothing to bring it about,” he said.
“Let us be very frank, let me say it like a Yorkshireman: It is not only self-defeating and counter-productive, it is also hypocritical and dishonest, to say you want to give people a choice on Europe and then help the election of a Labour government that would never give people that choice.”
* Mr Farage has disowned one of Ukip’s new election policies after less than 48 hours. On Friday its economic spokesman, Patrick O'Flynn, suggested it would levy a “luxury goods tax” of 25 per cent VAT on items such as designer shoes, handbags and luxury cars. But Mr Farage killed off the idea on Sunday, saying it “isn’t going to happen”.Reuse content