Britain could face a spate of new race riots if immigration gets "out of control" and the public do not have confidence in the "system", Michael Howard suggested last night.
In a claim that threatens to raise the temperature in the immigration debate, Mr Howard warned that the country had to "be vigilant if we are to make sure we continue to have good community relations".
The Tory leader's remarks came after he was accused by a member of the public of pandering to racism by making immigration a key election issue.
A member of the audience on ITV's Ask the Leaders said last night: "You don't realise what it is like for me. You are pandering to xenophobia and hatred in our country."
But in an angry exchange Mr Howard accused the man Dean Velani, 18, an Asian member of Labour Students, of trying to "abuse" and "insult" him.
"It does not take the debate much further to pin labels on me or abuse or insult me in the way in which you have just done," the Conservative leader replied. "What I say ... is if you disagree then tell us what you would do to deal with the problem."
Mr Howard's appearance came amid reports of unhappiness among senior Tories about the way his campaign has focused on asylum and immigration.
The Tory leader was challenged over his focus on immigration by the presenter Jonathan Dimbleby. "Are you fearful that if there are more newcomers than is desirable there will be more Burnleys, more Oldhams?" Mr Dimbleby asked.
Mr Howard replied: "I think that when people believe that there is no proper system, that immigration is out of control, I think that these anxieties ... make it more difficult to have good community relations."
He said the country had to "be vigilant if we are to make sure we continue to have good community relations". He refused to disassociate himself from an election advertisement issued by Bob Spink, a Tory candidate in Castlepoint, which said "What bit of 'send them back' don't you understand Mr Blair?".
Mr Howard said it referred to failed asylum seekers living illegally in Britain.
The Tory leader also rejected claims that highlighting asylum was making life worse for ethnic minorities living in Britain.
Mr Howard was forced to fend off accusations that he was playing on a "primeval" fear about immigration.
Roger Chandra, who said he was a disillusioned Conservative voter, said the Tories were deliberately combining the issues of immigration, asylum seekers and terrorism. "You mix those up, you are playing on the fear of people," he said.
Mr Howard said: "controlled immigration is the key to ensuring Britain's security, managing public services and guaranteeing good community relations."
He was on the defensive over plans to cap the number of people coming to Britain and faced questions over plans to process some asylum seekers offshore.
* A Liberal Democrat candidate resigned suddenly after it emerged that he had used the website of a radical Muslim group, which has been accused of producing anti-Semitic leaflets, to promote his campaign.
Ajmal Masroor, who was acandidate in West Ham, east London, appealed on the website of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee for volunteers to help his campaign.Reuse content