Immigration... Immigration... Immigration: Cameron hoped to ignore it. But now it's back with a vengeance

Hailed by David Cameron as the face of the new, multi-ethnic Tories, the shadow community cohesion minister has reignited a debate that threatens to derail her leader's attempts to shake off the 'nasty-party' image of the past and exposes the divisions between left and right. Marie Woolf reports

Glance at the agenda for this week's Tory conference and debates on the environment, the broken society and public services are advertised in bold. But where is immigration, the issue that once defined the Conservative Party? The answer: nowhere to be seen. Dogged by accusations that Tories have been obsessed for decades with the arrival of foreigners on our shores, David Cameron has tried his best to keep quiet on the topic in his quest to remould the Tories as the embraceable, "nice" party.

Yesterday with the help of his wife Samantha and six speech writers, Mr Cameron was frantically cutting his draft 9,000-word keynote speech to conference. His address, which will define the future direction of the Tory party, will address the themes of family, opportunity and responsibility. The most recent draft does not mention immigration once.

As the Tories board their trains to Blackpool this morning, the muttering is that their young leader may have strayed too far from core Conservative policies and should be discussing migration once more. With the polls showing that policies on hugging hoodies are not resonating with the electorate, Tory activists are clamouring for a return to the battleground issues of crime, tax cuts and guarding Britain's borders.

The first skirmishes in the war between modernisers and traditionalists for the soul of the Tory party will take place on the fringes of this week's Tory conference. In a sign that a shift back to core Tory values is in the offing and that the omertà on discussing immigration may be on the verge of crumbling, one of Mr Cameron's most trusted lieutenants has broken her silence – in a spectacular fashion.

Sayeeda Warsi, given a peerage by David Cameron to enable her to join his front bench as spokesman on cohesion, has taken on the issue head on, volunteering her view that immigration has been "out of control" and that people feel "uneasy" about the pace of immigration into Britain. Her intervention has outraged black groups who say she is using the language of the BNP. It also threatens to derail Mr Cameron's attempts to shake off the Conservatives' "nasty-party" image, while exposing divisions between left and right.

"What this country has a problem with is not people of different kinds coming into this country and making a contribution, but the problem that nobody knows who is coming in, who is going out – the fact that we don't have a border police; we don't have proper checks; we don't have any idea how many people are here, who are unaccounted for," she says. "It's that lack of control and not knowing that makes people feel uneasy, not the fact that somebody of a different colour or a different religion or a different origin is coming into our country." As her press officer squirms in his chair, she continues: "The control of immigration impacts upon a cohesive Britain."

Warming to her theme, she declares that the decision to house large groups of migrants on estates in the north of England "overnight" has led to tension in local communities. Similar tensions have been found in the London in Barking and Dagenham, where the far right has been making political in-roads. "The pace of change unsettles communities," she says.

Lady Warsi's outspoken intervention is somewhat surprising as she is the daughter of immigrants herself. Her father is a former Labour-supporting mill-worker from Pakistan who, after making a fortune in the bed and mattress trade, switched his allegiance to the Tories. The lawyer, 36, who is married with a nine-year-old daughter, devoted her early career to improving race relations, helping to launch Operation Black Vote in Yorkshire and sitting on various racial justice committees. So her analysis of race relations on the eve of the Tory conference cannot be dismissed as a right-wing rant.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Lady Warsi claims that the conspiracy of silence on the subject of immigration plays into the hands of the far-right British National Party.

"The BNP will look at what issue it is locally that they can exploit and the other political parties are not seen to be dealing with and they will play to that," she says. Far from ignoring the issue of immigration, she thinks it should be confronted head on. "I think we need to have the debate. One of the problems why the BNP has been allowed to grow is sometimes certainly the Labour Party took the view that if we ignore them they will just go away," she says.

But while BNP supporters, including the English National Ballet dancer Simone Clarke, have been sharply criticised for backing a racist party, Lady Warsi says that BNP voters should be listened to. "The BNP and what they represent, they clearly have a race agenda; they clearly have a hate agenda. But there are a lot of people out there who are voting for the British National Party and it's those people that we mustn't just write off and say 'well, we won't bother because they are voting BNP or we won't engage with them'," she says.

Indeed, she says, people who back the extreme-right party, criticised for its racist and homophobic agenda, may even have a point. "They have some very legitimate views. People who say 'we are concerned about crime and justice in our communities – we are concerned about immigration in our communities'," she said.

Lady Warsi's remarks are bound to embarrass David Cameron and to open up old wounds over race in the Conservative Party that her leader has worked hard to heal.

Mr Cameron has been outspoken in his support for a multi-ethnic Britain and has been uncompromising with MPs who have made racially inflammatory comments. He forced Patrick Mercer, a frontbench MP, to resign after he said he had met "a lot" of "idle and useless" ethnic-minority soldiers.

Last night black groups accused her of making a major misjudgement and of using "BNP language" and pandering to far-right views. Operation Black Vote, with whom Lady Warsi used to work, said it was "grotesque" to give credence to the views of people who vote BNP. "Pandering to racist views peddled by the BNP and bought by BNP voters is grotesque," said Simon Woolley, head of OBV. "The fact of the matter is that this country would collapse if it wasn't for migrant workers. This is BNP language she is using."

Lady Warsi's challenge to engage with BNP supporters will be considered all the more surprising because, as a practising Muslim, she became a BNP hate figure when she stood in the Yorkshire target seat of Dewsbury at the last election.

Far-right extremists are not the only reactionaries she has done battle with. She was told to put on her headscarf by a radical Islamist during a Newsnight interview. And in her speech to conference she will unveil an uncompromising message for hard-line preachers who want to subvert British values. "We can't allow people to come into our country which will actually divide our country," she says. She also thinks imams should speak in English and not use a "language which is from the Indian subcontinent" that British children may not be able to understand.

But it is her outspoken message on immigration that will prove most resonant. It will chime with many rank-and-file Tories who believe Mr Cameron has been spending too much time with the über-modernisers.

Even loyal Cameron supporters have been urging the leader to use this conference to signal a return to traditional Tory values. George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, is among those expected to return to core policies and appeal to middle England with talk of tax cuts.

The spectre of Tory traditional values is likely to raise its head in earnest this week. Graham Brady MP's decision to address a fringe meeting organised by the National Grammar Schools Association on the eve of the leader's speech is expected to stoke up disquiet over Mr Cameron's decision to criticise grammar schools. Mr Brady dramatically quit his frontbench role after Mr Cameron's attack.

One Tory apparatchik told The Independent on Sunday that Mr Cameron should allow the issue of grammar schools to be debated on the floor of conference, adding that this was a greater priority than announcements about "hugging icebergs". "Ever since the grammar school thing people have been thinking what does he stand for?" he said. "We need not to trash the Thatcherite past and an acknowledgement that high taxes are bad for the economy. There is a degree of suspicions and an uneasiness about him and who he associates with."

John Redwood, the right-wing frontbencher who supported Mr Cameron as leader, told The Independent on Sunday that Mr Cameron will begin to set out policies in keeping with "some of our eternal values like 'yes to lower taxes'".

"Of course I want lower taxes. He should and will start to pull together the strands of the policy reviews," he said.

But not all MPs are as optimistic that Mr Cameron will rise to the party's demands. With the latest polls showing the Tories trailing Labour by 11 points, one MP said the party is all but finished. "I think we're in deep trouble," the senior Conservative MP said. "I don't think it's possible to get the party back on track."

With talk of a snap election gaining traction each day, the pressure on Mr Cameron to reinvigorate his party's standing in the polls could not be greater. If he fails to boost his party's fortunes, and the Prime Minster chooses to go to the country, Mr Cameron's own fate could be in the balance. In an ominous move yesterday, Ladbrokes opened the betting on who will succeed him as leader. They made William Hague – who today will pledge his loyalty to Mr Cameron – the 3/1 favourite.

The far right: How the BNP tried to reinvent itself

The modern British National Party was founded in 1982 but is the latest incarnation of a long line of far-right organisations in Britain. The BNP grew out of a merger between the New National Front party and remnants of the British Movement. During the late 1980s the fragmented party became more organised under the leadership of John Tyndall and saw off the rival National Front. By the 1990s, it could boast 2,000 members in 50 branches and won local council seats in Tower Hamlets and Newham, east London.

In 1999, leadership of the party was taken over by Nick Griffin, a Cambridge graduate and son of the expelled Tory MP Edgar Griffin, three years after he was given a two-year suspended sentence for distributing material likely to incite racial hatred. The party has attracted far more mainstream media coverage under his guidance, and Griffin claims to have transformed the party's violent image. In its new guise, the BNP denies it is racist and has changed its immigration policy from "total" to "voluntary resettlement" of immigrants back to their country of origin, but calls for "an immediate halt to all further immigration".

Analysts claim the party has become adept at exploiting local issues in areas where mainstream parties have been neglectful. But local victories have not been transferred to parliamentary success. The party's best performance came in the 2001 general election, three weeks after the UK's worst race riots in 30 years, when Griffin took 17 per cent of the votes in Oldham West and Royton.

An undercover 'Panorama' investigation in 2004 led to Griffin and fellow party member, Mark Collett, being charged with inciting racial hatred for a speech in which Griffin described Islam as a "wicked, vicious faith". Defending their actions on the grounds of free speech, the pair were cleared last year by Leeds Crown Court.

Nina Lakhani

Further browsing: Searchlight, the anti-racismgroup, at searchlightmagazine.com

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