William Hague fuelled the political debate over race last night by warning that Britain faced a "massive influx of bogus asylum-seekers", in his swift rejection of an attempt by Downing Street to lower the temperature on the issue.
Hours after Tony Blair's spokesman appealed to parties to be careful about the language used when talking of asylum-seekers, the Tory leader made clear the controversial issue would remain a central plank in his party's campaigning.
And as the parties clashedover asylum, Millbank launched a personal attack on Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, who yesterday reported the Tories and Labour to the Commission for Racial Equality. Mr Hughes said ministers had broken pledges to the Refugee Council last year that they would not describe asylum- seekers as "bogus".
Mr Hague told a fund-raising dinner that Ken Livingstone, the independent candidate for mayor of London, would be "lethal for London on bogus asylum-seekers." He said:"Genuine refugees are suffering most at the hands of a system on the verge of collapse because of the massive influx of bogus asylum-seekers who come here because the Government has made Britain such a soft touch."
Tory aides said Mr Hague's decision to make the speech, despite being accused of "playing the race card", was a sign he would not be "scared off". Tory strategists believe their criticism has struck a chord with the public.
Downing Street blamed the rising number of asylumseekers on the "absolute shambles of a system" Labour inherited from the Tories. Mr Blair's spokesman said: "The Prime Minister would never, ever allow the Labour Party - to use that unpleasant, unfortunate phrase - to play the race card in relation to asylum- seekers. The Prime Minister's view is that in this area you do have to be very careful about the language you use."
Despite the appeal, there were angry exchanges in theCommons between Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and Ann Widdecombe, the Tory spokeswoman who has led the attacks on the Government's record. Miss Widdecombe told MPs the large majority of people who come to this country to seek asylum were "bogus" - a description she said Mr Blair had used five times recently.
"The asylum system has deteriorated to unbelievable and unprecedented levels in this country since this Government took power," she said. "The message went out to the rest of the world that Britain is a soft touch."
Mr Straw, accusing Miss Widdecombe of a "rant", said: "Whilst we do wish to bear down very strongly, as we are doing, on the numbers of unfounded asylum applications, the simple fact of the matter is that no one can know whether an application is genuine or not until the claim has properly been examined."
Attempts by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to turn their guns on the Tories were scuppered by a Liberal-Labour row. Ministers were furious that Mr Hughes bracketed Labour with the Tories in his complaint to the Commission. Millbank recalled that Mr Hughes spoke up in court in 1992 for a constituent who was jailed for three years after an Asian man was thrown at a moving Tube train by a group allegedly hurling racial abuse. His party said that was "completely irrelevant" to the current asylum debate.
A Labour spokesman said: "We are not going to take any lessons from the Lib Dems on race." Mr Hughes welcomed Downing Street's call and said ministers were adopting a more responsible tone.
The Labour MP Neil Gerrard, who chairs the all-party Refugee Group, told the Commons "ranting" by the Tories and the hysteria in the tabloid press would lead to racial attacks on and harassment of asylum-seekers and "do enormous long-term damage."
David Curry, the Tory MP and former minister, warned his own party, and Labour, against using intemperate language. "I think the Government has embarked upon a deeply intolerant course which it thinks is populist. I don't think we should engage in a competition with it."