Michael Howard was forced to reprimand Tory party workers yesterday after they claimed that "Conservatives feel just as strongly on key issues like asylum and immigration" as the BNP.
The statement linking the parties appeared in an election leaflet distributed by Tories in Birmingham last month.
In an explicit appeal to potential BNP voters, local Tories pointed out that its vote had helped keep a Labour councillor in office in a previous election and said that the party felt just as strongly as the BNP about asylum and immigration. The leaflet, distributed in the Northfield ward of the city, adds, however: "We will campaign without stirring up racial hatred. Please remember this if the BNP tempts you."
But Mr Howard authorised a stinging rebuke after the leaflet was drawn to his attention by The Independent on Sunday.
Liam Fox, the Tory party co-chairman, said: "Any linkage between the Conservatives' attitude to immigration and the racist policies of the BNP is fundamentally wrong. Equally objectionable is any language which implies one.
"I am sure that the authors of this leaflet did not intend to imply any such comparison and will in hindsight regret the error of judgement in making one," he added.
However, Tom Watson, the Labour MP in whose constituency the leaflet was distributed, called on the Conservatives to do more to distance themselves from racist policies. "It is all very well Liam Fox condemning this leaflet after it has been distributed. What they need to show is what they are doing to ensure no other local parties are playing the race card."
Mr Howard has made a point of cracking down on Tories who overstep the mark on race. He sacked Ann Winterton from his front bench after her ill-judged joke following the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy and recently travelled to Burnley to denounce the BNP.
Nevertheless, Tony Blair recently accused him of aggravating racial tensions by focusing on failures on the immigration frontline.
And the Birmingham leaflet may prove to be the first of a series of embarrassing examples as the Conservatives seek to reap political benefit from the issue at the local and European elections on 10 June.
All three mainstream parties fear that the BNP will make significant gains and could even see their first MEP elected in the North-West or North-East.Reuse content