Conservative modernisers are to launch a campaign to head off local pacts between their party and Ukip at next May’s general election.
The Bright Blue group will warn fellow Tories at next week’s party conference in Birmingham that constituency deals would alienate the centre-ground voters that David Cameron will need to woo to retain power.
Some Tory MPs have backed a trade-off in which Tory Eurosceptics would pledge to vote to leave the EU in the in/out referendum Mr Cameron has promised in 2017. Ukip would not then put up a candidate against them. In return, the Tories could give Ukip a free run in northern seats where it hopes to oust Labour.
The Tory leadership has ruled out a formal pact but could be powerless to stop a large number of candidates breaking ranks as they try to hold on to their seats. A strong Ukip vote in marginal seats could deprive the Tories of enough votes to allow Labour to win them.
Ukip’s rising stars
Ukip’s rising stars
1/7 Suzanne Evans
A Tory defector who has only been in the party for a year. She was rapidly appointed national communities spokesman. A former BBC reporter who now runs a PR agency, she has won plaudits within the party for her confidence in front of the camera.
2/7 Steven Woolfe
A barrister from Manchester whose father was mixed-race and mother was white. He was invited to become financial services spokesman before he had even joined Ukip. Now an MEP, his ethnicity and northern upbringing are in strong contrast to the Ukip stereotype.
3/7 Margot Parker
A local businesswoman who impressed Ukip’s hierarchy with her spirited campaign in the Corby and East Northants by-election 18 months ago. She was elected as an MEP for the East Midlands last week. She has a no-nonsense style which party chiefs believe will be persuasive on the national stage.
4/7 Patrick O’Flynn
A former Daily Express journalist who became Ukip’s director of communications and was a strategist behind the Euro-elections campaign. An experienced performer on television who is close to Mr Farage. With his media background he could become a culture spokesman.
5/7 Amjid Bashir
A restaurateur of Pakistani lineage who is one three Ukip MEPs representing Yorkshire and the Humber and currently speaks for the party on small business. After his election he said: “Here I am... of Asian birth, of Asian parentage, Muslim, and I have been selected by this so-called racist party. It disproves that completely.”
6/7 Louise Bours
Until her combative appearance alongside Piers Morgan and Joey Barton on Question Time last Thursday, she was one of Ukip’s lesser-known faces. The new MEP for the north-west is a former actress whose full name is Louise van de Bours. Her northern credentials could come in handy in wooing Labour-leaning voters.
7/7 Paul Nuttall
Long serving activist from Merseyside who became Ukip’s chairman in 2008 and deputy leader two years later. He is a key weapon in the party’s attempts to broaden its appeal to working-class voters in the North of England.
Ryan Shorthouse, director of Bright Blue, said: "Why would a political party with such a rich history - which has served and strengthened Britain for centuries - want to suddenly jump into bed with Farage and co? Ukip's agenda is negative, narrow and superficial. It has a handful of policies at best, and they are simplistic and ill-considered. Conservatives should fight not flirt with them.”
Mr Shorthouse said the Tories should appeal to Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters who dislike Ukip in next month’s Clacton by-election, where Douglas Carswell, the seat’s former Tory MP, is standing for Ukip after defecting to the party.
“It is important in this crucial year ahead that Number 10 really works to maintain and champion a broad conservative coalition both inside and outside Parliament,” said Mr Shorthouse. "Waiting for the outcome of the Prime Minister's renegotiation is the right decision if you are primarily concerned about what is best for Britain rather than the threat from Ukip. Indeed, pledging to vote to leave the EU before renegotiation attempts could convey a lack of confidence in David Cameron".
William Hague, the Commons Leader, urged Tory election candidates not to pledge to vote to leave the EU. He told Parliament’s The House magazine: “It’s very important not to be distracted from the Conservative Party’s main argument, which is we will deliver, and guarantee delivering, a referendum.”