Howard: Tories represent the mainstream on Europe

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard will today reflect growing alarm in Tory high command over the surge in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) with a stinging attack on it as an "extremist" organisation.

Michael Howard will today reflect growing alarm in Tory high command over the surge in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) with a stinging attack on it as an "extremist" organisation.

The fiercely anti-European party is buoyant after winning the backing of 12 peers - including four who have now been stripped of the Tory whip - and opinion polls suggested it could win up to a dozen seats in next week's European elections.

Anxiety is building in Conservative Central Office that the party could be the main victim of the UKIP's electoral success, undermining the Tories' attempt to land a heavy blow on Labour. A Tory briefing paper leaked yesterday denounced the UKIP as "cranks and political gadflies" and Mr Howard is to return to the theme in a speech on Europe today.

He will say that the Tories are the only party in tune with sensible mainstream opinion on Europe in this country and will contrast that with the extreme opinions of UKIP, which wants to leave the European Union altogether, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats, whom he will portray as keen to surrender power to Brussels.

John Redwood, a former Conservative cabinet minister, expressed concern yesterday over the stridency of the "cranks and gadflies" attack on the UKIP.

He said: "I don't agree with calling people silly names and I do believe in engaging on the issues." But he was scathing about the UKIP, denouncing it for "getting in the way of proper Eurosceptic candidates who could make a difference".

But Robert Kilroy-Silk, the former chat-show host and UKIP candidate retorted: "This is the Tory party in panic mode." He told the BBC's World at One programme: "Splitting the vote? This is about people expressing a vote based upon their political convictions. Now why are we demeaning that? Why are we talking about that being a wasted vote? It is the British people voting for something they want to vote for. This is the British people saying we want to come out of Europe."

The potential for the subject of Europe to reopen Tory faultlines the leadership hoped had closed was underlined yesterday by Baroness Cox, one of the peers to lose the whip after urging voters to back UKIP. She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I'm not an anti-European but the time has come to say we can't surrender our freedom to Brussels and that for me overrides every party political issue." She said "a very large number" of Conservatives shared her opinion, adding that the rebel peers were "the tip of an iceberg".

Lord Pearson, another rebel, said of Mr Howard's Europe policy: "It's like a bank robber walking into a bank and saying 'Give me your money and, incidentally, this thing's not loaded'."

However, Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "There are those who want to get out of Europe and that is the UKIP position on one end of the spectrum.

"There are those who want to become part of a far more integrated Europe, which is the Liberal Democrats and the Government on the other part of the spectrum."

Ian McCartney, the Labour Party's chairman, said: "The Tories are running scared of the UKIP and are moving further to the Eurosceptic right to counter their challenge.

"Michael Howard makes no secret of the fact that he wants to axe European protection for workers' rights and paid holidays," he said.

"It is hard-working families who would pay the price of the Tories' European panic."

An opinion poll last week put the UKIP on 18 per cent, beating the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. The Conservatives, who had previously been ahead in surveys, were running neck and neck with Labour. With support on that scale, UKIP could increase its representation in the European Parliament from three seats to 12 and enable it to break out of its heartland in the South-west.