Ukip is on course for a landslide victory in this week's European elections, a poll for The Independent on Sunday shows today, as Nigel Farage fiercely denied it was racist to point out "differences" between German and Romanian immigrants.
The Ukip leader yesterday issued a statement rejecting claims that he was racist in his explosive interview with the radio station LBC, but risked further controversy by declaring that there was a "high level of criminality within the Romanian community in Britain".
Today's ComRes poll gives Ukip its highest lead in a European elections survey, suggesting that the Eurosceptic party will scoop up MEP seats across the country. Among those who are certain to vote, Ukip is on 35 per cent, 11 points ahead of Labour, on 24 per cent, with the Conservatives down two points from the last ComRes poll earlier this month, at 20 per cent. The Green Party has pushed the Liberal Democrats into fifth place and is up two points to 7 per cent, while Nick Clegg's party is down two to 6 per cent.
But with British Euroscepticism expected to reach its highest ever point this Thursday, David Cameron is under pressure from allies of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, to reveal with whom the Conservatives will form an alliance in the new European Parliament. Tory MEPs have been in talks with controversial right-wing parties, including the anti-immigration Danish People's Party and the True Finns, to join their group in Strasbourg because the Tories' existing alliance is on the verge of collapse.
The Conservatives set up their group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in 2009 after pulling out of the more moderate European People's Party (EPP), to the dismay of Angela Merkel, whose party is in the EPP.
Now the leader of the UK branch of the EPP, has written to the Prime Minister saying that voters have a right to know who the Tories would co-operate with in Europe.
The ECR could collapse because many of its MEPs face defeat this week, meaning it will fall short of the requirement for members from seven EU countries.
The True Finns – whose leader, Timo Soini, once said "fair immigration is an oxymoron" – and the Danish People's Party – whose spokesman once likened the Muslim headscarf to the Nazi swastika – are currently members of Ukip's group.
In the letter seen by The IoS, Dirk Hazell, the leader of the 4 Freedoms Party, which is allied to the EPP, tells Mr Cameron: "Has the ECR already secured membership deals with new parties and, if so, with whom? Sadly, British influence has been reduced by your decision to order Conservative MEPs out of the EPP group in 2009." Tory MEP Daniel Hannan held talks with Mr Soini in Helsinki last month, and afterwards said the ECR would be substantially larger after the elections. Another Conservative MEP, Martin Callanan, has revealed that he has spoken to the Danish People's Party's leader, Morten Messerschmidt.
The EPP, which includes Mrs Merkel's CDU party as well as centre-right moderates in France, has urged Mr Cameron and his allies to turn away from right-wing Euroscepticism and rejoin their group. Mr Cameron formed the ECR as part of a pledge, made during his attempt to become Conservative party leader in 2005, to win over the right of his party. With the Prime Minister being held to his promise for an in-out referendum after the general election, it is unlikely he will move his MEPs back to the centre.
After Mr Farage's interview on LBC on Friday, The Sun – a newspaper with one of the toughest stances on immigration – ran an editorial yesterday saying it was "racist" to say there were differences between German and Romanian immigrants. In a statement, Mr Farage said: "Ukip will never allow the false accusation of racism levelled by a politically correct elite to prevent the raising of issues that are of concern to the great majority of the British public …
"Police figures are quite clear that there is a high level of criminality within the Romanian community in Britain. This is not to say for a moment that all or even most Romanian people living in the UK are criminals.
"But it is to say that any normal and fair- minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door."
The IoS/ComRes poll has some good news for the Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose MPs were left troubled by two surveys last week showing a Conservative lead at next year's general election. Voting intentions expressed for 2015 give Labour a four-point lead over the Tories – 33 per cent to 29 per cent – while Ukip are down one, to 19 per cent, and the Lib Dems are up one point, on 8 per cent.
But, despite making a speech last week in which he promised GP appointments within 48 hours, Mr Miliband is struggling for support on the National Health Service among voters. Nearly half – 47 per cent – of people do not believe he would deliver on the promise, while just 27 per cent think he would. And only 36 per cent think the NHS would be safer under Labour than under the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, while nearly as many – 34 per cent – disagree.
Mr Miliband and the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, also continue to struggle on economic trust, the poll shows, though neither party has much to boast about. While Mr Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, have a net confidence rating on the economy of minus 21 per cent, the Labour pair have a rating of minus 34 per cent.
In a speech in Crawley, West Sussex, yesterday, Mr Miliband insisted that Ukip does not have the answer to the problems besetting the country. He said that the only alternative Ukip had to offer to those feeling "deep discontent" was a combination of even deeper cuts than the coalition and higher unemployment, which would be the result of withdrawal from the European Union.
"If the question on the ballot paper next Thursday is whether we can turn Britain from a country run for a few at the top to a country run for working people once again, Ukip is not the answer," he said.
"They claim to offer something new. But what are their answers? 'Keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive'. Bigger cuts than the Tories. Charges to see your GP. Leave Europe, with all that means for investment and jobs.
"Friends, this agenda will never serve the working people of Britain."
The green alternative
The Green Party could benefit from an "anti-Ukip" vote in this Thursday's elections, its leader, Natalie Bennett says.
The Greens have pushed the Liberal Democrats into fifth place in the polls and could treble their number of MEPs if that is replicated in voting this week. Ms Bennett, speaking after touring seats in the North-west on Friday, said many people were saying they had been compelled to turn out and vote to "stop Ukip" because they did not like Nigel Farage's hard-line message.
Only a 1.6 per cent swing to the Greens would mean they would increase their tally from two MEPs to six. The party is particularly popular among the young – although turnout is low among this age group.
Ms Bennett claimed that Labour voters in the North-west were switching to Greens, while in the South-west her party was picking up support from Lib Dem voters. In traditional Conservative heartlands, some people were voting Green because of fears about fracking.
She told The Independent on Sunday: "This is a PR election, every vote counts. The three large parties are offering business as usual. Politicians really have to change.
"There is a definite feeling that the Lib Dems have sold out. With Labour voters, a lot of people are feeling that Labour is so wishy-washy and close to the Tories. On Twitter, quite a lot of people say they are voting green because of the green-belt issue.
"There are people who haven't voted for many years. They are considering voting for us as the anti-Ukip vote. Among the young, we are the only people saying disadvantaged young people should not be paying for the mistakes of the older generation."
Ms Bennett agreed with criticism of the "zombie Parliament", which has arisen because the five-year fixed term has left MPs with little to debate or legislate. "It has become very clear that five years is too long." While the Greens have just one MP in Westminster, Caroline Lucas, they are hoping to pick up support on an anti-politics platform from the opposite side of the mainstream to Ukip. Ms Bennett is pushing to take part in the general election TV debates. She said: "We have to be present in the debates if they are to have any credibility."
IoS poll results
ComRes tends to record a higher level of support for Ukip in the European election than some pollsters because it assumes that only those who say they are "absolutely certain to vote" – 49 per cent of the sample – will turn out on Thursday. This compares with a turnout of 34 per cent in the last European election five years ago. Today's 11-point lead for Nigel Farage's party over Labour equals the record lead, also reported by ComRes, at the end of April.
One of the reasons for Ukip's level of support is the strength of opposition to free movement of workers in the EU. Only 25 per cent of voters agreed that "all citizens of other European Union countries should have the right to live and work in the United Kingdom"; 54 per cent disagreed.