Peter Mandelson today warns David Cameron not to move further to the right on Europe, even if the UK Independence Party takes seats from the Conservatives at this week's local elections.
Nigel Farage's party is expected to make gains in the mainly county council elections in England and Wales on Thursday, at the expense of Tory councillors.
But in an article for The Independent on Sunday, Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary and EU trade commissioner, says the Prime Minister must not change course and must continue to try to get the best for the UK out of reform in Europe – but only on the basis that Britain retains a central role.
Ukip is expected to poll at least 12 per cent of the votes – although experts pointed out this would translate into just a handful of seats. Some Conservative MPs are warning of an electoral bloodbath, where hundreds of councillors could be lost, leaving the party weakened at its grassroots before the general election. With many of the polls taking place in the English shire counties, the Tories are fighting from a high watermark in 2009 and are expected to concede scores of council seats to all parties, not just to Ukip. At the same time, Ed Miliband is under pressure to show Labour is truly a "one nation" party by making inroads in councils in the South-east, after coming a humiliating fourth in the Eastleigh by-election.
In his article, Lord Mandelson says: "Whatever the results for Ukip in this week's local elections – and whether it represents the political 'earthquake' its leader, Nigel Farage, predicts – we mustn't be shifted off course in getting the best deal for the UK in Europe. Long-term national interest must be our guide, not short-term politics.
"Likewise, whatever you think of David Cameron's motives and the anti-European politics of some of his party, we should not make the mistake of dismissing talk of reform just because it comes from this quarter."
The former EU commissioner says Europe needs to change to be economically successful and points out that it is not only Eurosceptics in Britain who are raising concerns about the EU's governance. Lord Mandelson describes the phrase "repatriation of powers" as a "non-starter" because other EU nations believe Britain should not be treated as a special case. But he adds: "Cameron's basic agenda for EU reform is one we can engage with because it predates him."
The Prime Minister attempted to pre-empt election losses by refreshing his Downing Street operation last week, selecting Boris Johnson's brother Jo as head of a beefed-up policy unit. But Jesse Norman, who was last week appointed to a new Conservative parliamentary board, attracted criticism yesterday after he claimed Eton's public service "ethos" was the reason so many of its former pupils were at the heart of government. Mr Norman clarified his remarks on Twitter, insisting that he was defending Eton rather than attacking other institutions.
Meanwhile, Mr Farage is facing criticism that his party failed to vet candidates after several were revealed to have anti-Semitic, racist or homophobic views. It emerged that some Ukip candidates were on a former membership list of the BNP, and some have been suspended.