Michael Howard branded the British National Party a "stain" on British democracy yesterday as he vowed the Tories would never again allow the far-right a free run in towns like Burnley.
The Conservative leader's attack on the BNP was twinned with savage criticism of Tony Blair for failing to meet public concerns over migration and asylum policy.
On the first visit to Burnley by a mainstream party leader since the town was hit by riots three years ago, Mr Howard made clear that race and immigration would feature prominently in the run-up to the next general election.
In a keynote speech, he said parties such as the BNP would only flourish at the ballot box if governments pursued "failed" immigration policies.
However, he conceded for the first time that it was wrong of the Tories not to put up candidates in some seats fought by the BNP in last year's local elections. The far-right party had councillors elected in Burnley and Calderdale in West Yorkshire when the Conservatives failed to contest them.
"I certainly hope we'll have a candidate in every ward. We're trying very hard to get as many candidates as we can. I'm pretty sure we'll have many more candidates than last time," Mr Howard said.
In last May's local elections, out of the 209 wards contested by the BNP, Labour failed to put up candidates in nine of them, the Tories in 23 and the Liberal Democrats in 55 seats.
Mr Howard described the BNP as "a bunch of thugs dressed up as a political party" and warned that they must not be allowed to use the proportional electoral system to win seats this June in the European Parliament.
He turned on the BNP leader Nick Griffin for denying the existence of Nazi concentration camps. "I happen to know that he is wrong about that. My grandmother was one of the millions of people who died in those camps," he said.
The Tory leader also used his speech to highlight the Government's failure to put arrangements in place, such as restricted work permits, to deal with immigration from countries joining the EU in May. Unless the Government acted "justly but decisively" on immigration, support for extremists would grow and respect and tolerance for immigrants in Britain would fall, he added.
Fiona Mactaggart, a Home Office minister, later accused Mr Howard of opportunism. "The Tories have no asylum and immigration policy: their only proposal is the ridiculed 'fantasy island' policy for asylum-seekers, despite the fact they profess they don't have a clue where the island would be," she said.
Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, condemned Mr Howard's "opportunistic" decision to make his speech in Burnley. "While everyone would agree with Michael Howard's statements on the BNP, it is disappointing that he went on to pander to the right on asylum and immigration," he said.
Abdul Qureshi, vice-chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, welcomed Mr Howard's decision to speak out against the BNP in Burnley as a "positive step".
He said that when the BNP first started fielding candidates for the local council in the wake of the 2001 race riots, the main parties had failed to address the threat. "The mainstream parties were not fighting hard enough," he said.
However he criticised Mr Howard's decision to concentrate on immigration when the real cause of the town's problems were drugs and the lack of opportunities for young people.
Brian Turner, the BNP councillor for Worsthorne and Cliviger, and one of seven BNP councillors in Burnley, dismissed the notion that the BNP was a stain on democracy. "The Burnley BNP are not racist at all and they are certainly not Nazis. Simple as that. If anyone calls me a Nazi I want to know about it," he said.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said: "Many of the problems the Government faces on asylum, immigration and crime are a result of the aftermath of Michael Howard's time as Home Secretary.
"It takes the biscuit for him to be lecturing us about asylum, to be lecturing us about crime and lecturing us about taking decisions, when I am spending most of my time trying to put right what he didn't do."Reuse content