Blair prepares to capitalise as Howard is shaken by a crisis over Europe
Gaby Hinsliff, Guardian, May 30
Michael Howard was forced yesterday to expel four rebel Tory peers from the party after they declared their backing for the far-right UK Independence party.
The coup for the fringe party — which advocates withdrawal from the EU and has run a heavily anti-immigrant campaign — marks the most serious internal crisis over Europe since John Major withdrew the whip from Maastricht rebels.
Yesterday an unrepentant Lord Pearson of Rannoch — widely regarded as the ringleader of the peers’ plot — accused the leadership of behaving like ‘silly prefects’, adding that he found out he had had the Tory whip withdrawn only when journalists rang him up.
Pearson told The Observer: ‘The abrogation of our democracy, the breaking of a great pact with the British people for this corrupt octopus in Brussels, is far more important than any sort of party loyalty.’ The furore caps an astonishing few weeks for UKIP, in which it has doubled its standing in the polls.
But while the Tories have been hardest hit, its rise poses a threat to all mainstream parties, epitomising a backlash against ‘professional politicians’ — and worrying levels of support for extreme policies on immigration. One Tory backbencher said it was being privately compared to the ‘BNP in suits’.
Michael Ancram, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, launched a furious attack on the party in an interview with The Observer, dismissing it as ‘xenophobic’ and using ‘unacceptable’ language about immigrants in its manifesto, which describes Britain as being ‘full up’.
’If people want to leave the EU, then we are not the party who is going to deliver that: we will deliver a better Europe,’ he said. Although Howard will make a keynote speech on Europe on Tuesday, he is expected to refrain from direct attacks on the UKIP. Instead, Tory MPs have been issued with briefing packs arguing that only the Conservatives have a rational Eurosceptic position.
A YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph yesterday showed UKIP has more than doubled its support among the wider electorate from 2 to 5 per cent: the BNP now has 2 per cent.
Howard has recently emphasised his Eurosceptic credentials more strongly, pledging to seize back control of Britain’s fishing rights. But he has not gone far enough for the rebels, who tried to persuade him to threaten to renegotiate the founding treaties of the EU — paving the way for withdrawal.
The plot emerged when UKIP published a letter signed by five Tory peers — Pearson, Baroness Cox of Queensbury, Lord Laing of Dunphail, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, and Lord Willoughby de Broke — and seven crossbenchers, urging votes to switch temporarily to UKIP in June’s European elections ‘in the national interest’. Laing later withdrew his name under pressure from the leadership, but the other four will lose the whip.
Tony Blair will move to capitalise on the fiasco, portraying UKIP as the ‘Militant Tendency’ of the Conserva tive party as campaigning steps up for Euro, local and London mayoral elections on 10 June.
Launching his manifesto on Tuesday for the London mayoral election, Ken Livingstone will try to insulate himself from anti-Labour protest votes by insisting there is little to choose between himself and the Liberal Democrats on issues from war to the congestion charge. Lib Dem candidate Simon Hughes has fought a surprisingly lacklustre campaign and Livingstone is targeting the votes of his supporters.