Nigel Farage urged Ukip to start striking a positive tone about the immigration debate in his spring conference speech on Friday, just hours after some of his party spokesmen linked people coming to Britain to strains on food supply, water and even the sewage system.
The Ukip leader did not have any new policy to unveil for the two-day event in Margate, Kent, as the party failed to get its manifesto ready in time. Instead, Farage used his speech to an audience of candidates and activists to make a plea for a hopeful message and against negative campaigning. “Everything about our campaign is going to be positive because we believe in Britain,” he said.
Ukip wants an “amicable divorce” from the EU, wants to “re-embrace the Commonwealth” and “inject a positive note into the immigration debate” by promoting the benefit of a points-system based on skills, he said.
He dismissed rumours he claimed were spread by his political rivals that he was suffering poor health, joking that his demise had been much exaggerated. Far from taking a back seat, Farage said, he wanted to lead Ukip in “all the elections to come”.
Earlier, Patrick O’Flynn, the Ukip economics spokesman, , called on his fellow party members to be “responsible, civilised in debate, understated rather than hyperbolic, and generous to opponents rather than ranting”, in an effort to minimise the chance of gaffes before the election.
However, without new policies, many of the conference speakers retreated to comfort-zone themes, repeating familiar gripes about uncontrolled immigration, the dangers of the EU and climate change policy.
Steven Woolfe, the party’s migration spokesman, used his speech to suggest the rising population caused by immigration could put pressure on food security, water and the sewage system.
“Schools are full, hospitals are troubled, healthcare – it is difficult to be seen in many areas of this country,” he said. “Roads need to be built. We need to look after the way we feed ourselves because we’ve got a growing population. What about our water and sewage systems? All of these matter.”
Stuart Agnew, Ukip’s agriculture spokesman, said that 3 million extra immigrants over the next 10 years could put food security at risk and the “terrorists would know it”, leading the country to buckle.
Nathan Gill, the party’s foreign aid spokesman, said the development budget would be limited to life-saving measures and Ukip would “help our own people first”. He produced a booklet for all delegates picturing a child on the front entitled: “8 Reasons for Cutting Foreign Aid and why the third world would benefit if we did”.
Other material handed out at the conference included a leaflet produced by the fringe Christian Soldiers of Ukip group, which accused the state of “allowing the sexual grooming of our primary school children for same sex attraction”. It blamed “the LGBT” for a recruitment drive for “fresh blood” in schools as “such people cannot reproduce their own kind”.
Farage was late to arrive at the conference, after speaking the previous night at a hard-right US Conservative Political Action Conference.
His plea for positivity came as new research by ComRes and ITV showed 44% of people think Ukip is racist - an increase of 12 points in the past year - perhaps in the aftermath of the BBC documentary showing a councillor in Kent being expelled for saying she did not like “negroid” features.
About 37% of people said Ukip was nastyup five points, and 47% believed it was not a credible party, up 11 points. The party was more trusted than the others on the issue of immigration but 48% said it did not have sensible policies, up 10 points.
In recent weeks, the party has been trying to regain some national momentum after several recent polls suggested Ukip has lost ground to the mainstream parties.
In contrast, Farage’s own battle to represent South Thanetappears to be going well, after a Ukip-funded poll by Survation put him 11 points ahead of his closest rival.
The party is now expected to unveil its manifesto after the budget in March, but some activists, including two MEPs, could be overheard grumbling about the lack of new material launched at the conference, leaving them with little to sell on the doorstep.
Opening the conference, policy chief Suzanne Evans acknowledged the document would not be available for another few weeks, but she revealed that she had identified up to £35bn a year of big ticket items for cuts. These include £3bn-8bnfrom revising the Barnett formula (the mechanism for allocating public expenditure for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales), £11bn from foreign aid, £10bn from leaving the EU, £2bn from tackling health tourism and £4bn a year from cancelling the HS2 rail link.
This would allow the party to sign up to the Conservative timetable of clearing the deficit and still provide money left over for giveaways. Farage said the Conservative plan to clear the deficit by 2017-18 was reasonable but, unlike the other parties, he would stick to that plan.