Nigel Farage has hit back at claims by a Government minister that the UK Independence Party is supported by racists and is against foreigners and immigrants.
Ahead of local elections on Thursday, Ken Clarke branded the party “clowns” after Ukip accused the Conservatives of running a “morally reprehensible” smear campaign against its would-be councillors.
As the Conservative minister without portfolio continued his savage attack, he called into questions the beliefs of Ukip party members, accusing them of relying on negative policies, harbouring prejudice against immigrants and foreigners and of having a supporter base populated with “waifs and strays” and protest voters.
But Mr Farage responded to the allegations today by saying “They have lost the argument so Ken Clarke and others have decided that, rather than going for the ball, they are going to attack the player and that is exactly what this is about.”
Mr Farage, whose party is fielding 1,700 candidates in the council elections, told ITV's Daybreak that rival politicians are afraid of Ukip.
He said: “They know that the British public are genuinely concerned about opening up the door to Bulgaria and Romania next year.
He added: ”They are concerned because we have a million youngsters unemployed, we have wages being driven down and I am afraid a crime wave in London being caused by Romanians already.
Mr Farage went on to say: “These are tough subjects to talk about… All we are doing is talking the truth… There is nothing in Ukip that is racist in any way at all and Ken Clarke knows it... If he throws this abuse out, we will start having a proper debate“.
Ukip is investigating a handful of its record 1,700 candidates over links to groups such as the BNP and alleged racist and homophobic comments.
Mr Farage, whose party has said it does not condone ”unpalatable views“, told the programme Ukip is ”the only party in British politics who does not allow former members of the BNP to even join us as a member, let alone be a candidate.
“Labour has sitting councillors who are former BNP members, the Tories have BNP members in their party. We forbid it.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson has urged Tories not to panic over Ukip's rise in the polls, insisting it could be a good thing.
Mr Johnson said the party's popularity suggested the Conservative approach was “broadly popular”, while Labour was “going nowhere”.
He also delivered an apparent rebuke to Ken Clarke for his “ill-advised insults”.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph as campaigning intensifies ahead of the elections, Mr Johnson said Mr Farage had always struck him as a “rather engaging geezer”.
“He's anti-pomposity, he's anti-political correctness, he's anti-loony Brussels regulation. He's in favour of low tax, and sticking up for small business, and sticking up for Britain.”
He went on: “We Tories look at him - with his pint and cigar and sense of humour - and we instinctively recognise someone who is fundamentally indistinguishable from us.”
Mr Johnson - widely tipped as a successor to David Cameron - said Tories should resist the temptation to “overreact, to freak out, to denounce them all as frauds or worse”.
“I think there may have been a few ill-advised insults flying around in the past couple of days,” he wrote.
“Well, I would humbly submit that there are better ways of tackling the Ukip problem, if indeed it is really a problem at all.
”The rise of Farage and Ukip tells us some interesting and important things about what the electorate wants - and it is by no means bad news for the Conservatives.
“It tells us that the voters are fed up with over-regulation of all kinds, and especially from Brussels.
”Well, who is going to offer a referendum on the EU? Only the Conservatives - and the trouble with voting Ukip is that it is likely to produce the exact opposite: another Labour government and another five years of spineless and unexamined servitude to the EU.“
The Mayor said it was natural that voters were tempted to vote for Ukip and to give the political class a ”kick in the pants“.
”Rather than bashing Ukip, I reckon Tories should be comforted by their rise - because the real story is surely that these voters are not turning to the one party that is meant to be providing the official opposition,“ he said.
”The rise of Ukip confirms a) that a Tory approach is broadly popular and b) that in the middle of a parliament, after long years of recession, and with growth more or less flat, the Labour Party is going precisely nowhere.“
Mr Farage told LBC 97.3 that David Cameron's 2006 assessment of Ukip as a party of ”fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists“ was due to having ”grown up in a very narrow world“.
He said: ”When Cameron said it, I think it was just a relatively young, inexperienced leader of the Tory party who has grown up in a very narrow world and anybody with a view or an argument outside of what Mr Cameron considers to be normal is just dismissed, batted away as being irrelevant, not mainstream, not respectable.“
Responding to criticism of the party's economic policies, Mr Farage said the party would produce a fully costed manifesto in time for the 2015 election.
Setting out his aims for Thursday's elections he said: ”A successful outcome would be a big average percentage of the score ... anything over 15% would establish us as the third force in English politics.“
He added: ”What we need to do is to show that we can start to win under the first-past-the-post system. It is very difficult, but I am hoping and expecting that on Friday we will look and we will see that Ukip have established bridgeheads on county councils up and down the country.“