David Cameron has issued a direct plea to former Conservative voters who defected to Ukip to “come back home” to the Tories or risk handing the keys of Downing Street to Ed Miliband.
Speaking at a Tory rally on the outskirts of Bristol on Monday, the prime minister used emollient language about voters he once described as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” and said he understood why former Tories had been won over by Nigel Farage on immigration and Europe.
He spoke before the broadcast of a TV interview in which he admitted he must also work harder to correct “perceptions” that he promotes the interests of the rich.
As Cameron spoke, Tories hit back angrily at claims by the Liberal Democrat Treasury chief secretary, Danny Alexander, that he was told in private the Conservatives would look after the bosses while he should champion workers.
The prime minister’s appeal came amid cautious optimism among senior Tories that Ukip may struggle to win more than a handful of seats on 7 May after a poll showed that support for Farage has slipped in South Thanet. But there are concerns that Ukip could perform strongly in many Tory heartlands, potentially handing some safe Conservative seats to one of the other major parties.
Cameron asked the former Tories to remember that they were being asked to choose a government on 7 May. He said: “I’ll be appealing to those voters in the coming days and saying, ‘Look, we have heard the message loud and clear about the things you want to see changed. We will change those things. But on the key choice about who has got the right team to run the economy, to keep your taxes down, to cut taxes further, to keep generating the jobs and the growth our country needs – come with us, come back home to us rather than risk all of this good work being undone by Labour.’ That will be the message.”
In the TV interview, Cameron spoke frankly of a Tory weakness which has helped to fuel support for Ukip - the belief that Conservatives promote the interests of the rich.
Asked by the ITV News political editor, Tom Bradby, whether his single biggest problem is the perception that he is a member of an elite, he said: “I accept, in politics, perceptions matter as well as reality and you have to, we’ve got to work harder to get that right.”
Cameron admitted he went to a “very posh school” but denied that he has abandoned his campaign to modernise the Tory party, which saw him champion the less well off and to, as he said, “stop banging on about Europe”.
He said: “I think the Conservative party’s moved a huge way under my leadership, and I’ve never tried to hide who I am. Look, I … went to a very posh school, I had a very privileged upbringing with parents who were incredibly loving and brilliant. I’ve never tried to hide that, I’m not going to change my accent or talk in a different way.”
His background and the generous funding of the Tories by the City returned to the fore of the election campaign after Alexander said a Tory had told him on the eve of the “omnishambles” budget in 2012 that they were interested in promoting the interests of the bosses.
Alexander told the Independent: “I remember one meeting with a group of senior Conservatives and one of them – I’m not going to say who – said: ‘Listen, you take care of the workers and we’ll take care of the bosses’.”
The culture secretary, Sajid Javid, who was heavily involved in the 2012 budget preparations as Osborne’s parliamentary private secretary, described Alexander’s claims as “complete rubbish”.
Alexander told The World at One on BBC Radio 4: “They can say what they like. I remember what was said and I remember the nervous laughter from the other side of the table when it was said.”
The row threatened to overshadow the main Tory campaign message as the Easter weekend came to an end – “Money-back Monday” in which the Tories highlighted the raising of the tax-free personal allowance. Osborne will step up his campaign against Labour on tax by claiming that the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown increased taxes on earnings on the average household by £1,895 a year in real terms.
The chancellor will say: “When it comes to tax rises, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have done it all before – and they would do it all over again, if they had the chance. Higher taxes and higher debts under Labour would cost jobs and take Britain back to square one.”
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