Howard launches fierce attack on UKIP 'extremists'

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Indy Politics

The Tories and the UK Independence Party swapped insults yesterday as the upbeat anti-EU party announced it had received a £500,000 windfall from a retired bookmaker.

The Tories and the UK Independence Party swapped insults yesterday as the upbeat anti-EU party announced it had received a £500,000 windfall from a retired bookmaker.

Alan Bown, who made a multi-million pound fortune from a chain of betting shops in the South-east, has provided a quarter of the war chest built up by the UKIP for this month's European elections.

Its £2m fighting fund has helped boost the party towards 20 per cent opinion poll ratings and alarmed Tory strategists who fear it is siphoning votes from the Conservatives. In a fiercely worded speech yesterday, Michael Howard, the Tory leader, denounced the UKIP as an "extreme" party on the "fringe" of the European debate.

The UKIP accused the Tory leader of lying to the voters and claiming its ambition to pull out of the European Union was privately shared by many Conservative MPs.

Mr Howard argued that the country's interests were best served by staying in Europe, but that Britain should use its influence to reform the European Union from within.

He said: "That is what the mainstream majority in Britain want - and that is what a Conservative government will give them. But the fringes at both ends of the European debates are united in one thing. Both give the British people the defeatist message that we cannot have a flexible Europe."

In the speech, in Southampton, he said voters faced a "clear choice" at the poll on 10 June. "At one extreme, there are the candidates from the UK Independence Party. They represent a party that want to pull out of the European Union altogether. They have frequently failed to vote in the European Parliament on issues that are vital to Britain.

"At the other extreme are Labour and the Liberal Democrats - who want to transfer even more power from Britain to Brussels, setting Europe on the path to a single European State."

Hours later, the UKIP challenged Eurosceptic Tory MPs to follow the lead of four peers and join its campaign to take Britain out of the EU.

Robert Kilroy-Silk, the former chat show-host who is now a the UKIP candidate, said Mr Howard was "patronising" more than half of the British electorate, who wanted Britain quit the EU. The party released details of a poll which suggested 54 per cent of voters think Britain should leave the EU if it can negotiate a free trade agreement with the remaining member states, against 31 per cent who said it should stay in.

Mr Kilroy-Silk said: "Why don't we have a bit of honest speaking from the Tory MPs who we know support our cause? I could give you the names. I know them well. I say to those Tory MPs who share our views and our aspirations, and there are many of them, who Michael Howard has just called gadflies and extremists: that's what your party leader thinks of you because you want Britain to be a sovereign independent state."

Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, confirmed his party was running a £2m election campaign. He said half had come from its 22,000 members, £500,000 from Mr Bown and the rest from other donors, including millionaire Paul Sykes, a former Tory supporter.

He said of the £500,000 windfall from Mr Bown: "He has been watching the party for two or three years. He feels we are literally giving away the right to run our affairs."