William Hague was accused of pandering to neo-Nazis last night after he warned that the National Front would become more popular unless the Government clamped down on asylum seekers.
The Conservative leader faced a barrage of criticism after he predicted there would be more NF marches if the "flood" of people seeking entry to Britain was not halted. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, claimed Mr Hague was "pandering" to the far-right.
Mr Hague's comments came as he vigorously denied claims that his party had attempted to play the race card ahead of Thursday's local elections. In an interview with LWT's Dimbleby programme, the Tory leader was unrepentant about plans to use prison camp detention centres for those entering the UK illegally.
When it was pointed out to him that there had been a National Front march in Birmingham last week, he replied that such protests would become more frequent unless action was taken to curb the asylum situation. "We would end up seeing more National Front marches in Birmingham if we failed to deal with these problems," he said. "This country has managed to improve race relations ... by being firm but fair about immigration, asylum and so on. Now those rules are being abused."
Mr Hague also refused to back away from his claim that Britain was being "flooded" with "bogus asylum-seekers"."The dictionary definition of a flood is a flow that is out of control," he said. "There is no question when we have more than 100,000 asylum seekers in the queue for processing their application that we have a flow that is out of control."
However, figures released by the Home Office last week showed fewer than 100,000 asylum-seekers were now awaiting decisions, with decisions outweighing applications by more than 4,500 in March.
The Home Secretary condemned Mr Hague's remarks, claiming they proved the "dangers" of his weak leadership. "Pushed to the right by his own party, he now justifies his stand by claiming that otherwise support for even more extreme views will grow," Mr Straw said. "But pandering to the National Front ... is no way to oppose them. Mr Hague has fed anxieties which can lead to extremism by gross exaggeration of the asylum situation."
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Mr Hague's "deplorable" remarks on asylum proved he wanted to lower the tone of British politics.