Tories blast Ukip defector Reckless
Furious Tories have turned their fire on ex-MP Mark Reckless, with David Cameron branding his defection to Ukip "senseless and counter-productive" while party chairman Grant Shapps told activists: "He lied and lied and lied again."
The Rochester MP's switch to Nigel Farage's party, coupled with the resignation of Government minister Brooks Newmark over a sex scandal, cast a shadow over the final Conservative conference before the 2015 general election.
The Prime Minister suffered a further blow from polling by former party treasurer Lord Ashcroft, who found Labour was heading for a "comfortable working majority" next May.
With Tories coming under continuing pressure from Ukip - and facing possible by-election defeat next month at Clacton thanks to the defection of Douglas Carswell - Mr Cameron appeared to show a little leg to eurosceptics in a high-profile TV interview, insisting he would not argue for continued European Union (EU) membership in a referendum if it was not in the national interest.
But the Prime Minister stopped short of saying he could campaign for a No vote if his planned renegotiation fails to deliver the required reforms to the terms of UK membership, despite being given several opportunities to do so on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show.
Aides insisted that there was no change in his position that he wants and expects to secure sufficient change to recommend a Yes vote in the referendum he has promised for 2017.
Restating his determination to renegotiate the UK's relationship with Brussels, with a focus on changing immigration rules, Mr Cameron told Marr: " If I don't achieve that, it will be for the British public to decide whether to stay in or get out.
"I have said this all my political life: if I thought that it wasn't in Britain's interest to be in the European Union, I wouldn't argue for us to be in it."
The Prime Minister acknowledged that Mr Reckless' departure made a Conservative government "less likely" after 2015.
He added: "These things are frustrating and, frankly, they are counter-productive and rather senseless.
"If you want to have a European referendum, if you want to have immigration controlled, if you want to get the deficit down, if you want to build a stronger Britain that we can be proud of, there is only one option, and that is to have a Conservative government after the next election."
Mr Shapps told activists that they had been "abused ... cheated ... cast aside" by Mr Reckless, who has forced a second by-election by declaring he will stand down from Parliament to seek re-election under the Ukip banner.
"We have been let down by somebody who has repeatedly lied to his constituents and to you - who said one thing and then did another," the Tory chairman told conference.
"Last month, he looked us in the eye and said it is only our Prime Minister who can secure a say for the British people on Europe.
"Last week, he insisted he would be campaigning for an outright Conservative majority. Two days ago, he was busy leaving phone messages claiming he was enthusiastic about joining us to campaign ... here in Birmingham today.
"He lied and lied and lied again."
Mr Reckless, who was barracked by Tory loyalists as he joined Mr Farage to campaign in Rochester, insisted he was trying to "do the right thing" by his constituents, telling BBC1's Sunday Politics: "We made all these promises in 2010 as Conservatives and they have been broken.
"David Cameron has had his chance, he hasn't kept his promises, I want to keep mine."
Following the defections by Mr Carswell and Mr Reckless, there has been speculation that other Tories could be tempted to join Mr Farage's party.
But Tory MEP Dan Hannan, one of those named as a possible turncoat, said: "I have immense respect for Mark Reckless as an MP and as a friend. I wish him all the best but I won't be following him to Ukip."
Meanwhile, Mr Newmark admitted he had been "a complete fool" after allegedly sending X-rated pictures of himself over the internet to an undercover reporter posing as a Tory PR girl.
The 56-year-old married father-of-five, who resigned as minister for civil society after learning that the Sunday Mirror was about to publish details of their exchanges, told ITV News: " I have been a complete fool. I have no-one to blame but myself.
"I have hurt those I care about most. I am so so sorry. But I just need time with my family."
Mr Cameron acknowledged the twin setbacks had distracted attention from an announcement by Chancellor George Osborne of plans to "abolish youth unemployment" by creating three million new apprenticeships, funded by a £3,000 cut in the benefit cap to £23,000 a year.
At the same time, childless 18 to 21-year-olds would be barred from claiming housing benefit and lose their entitlement to jobseeker's allowance after six months.
Mr Cameron said the benefits cap was "a policy which has worked and worked very well", adding: "T he plan we have for Britain is to spend less on welfare and more on helping people into work."
The Child Poverty Action Group said reducing the cap would force more children below the breadline and "fail any credible family test" while homelessness charity Shelter said that removing the housing benefit safety net from young people who cannot live with their parents would be a "disaster".
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg renewed calls for a "broad electoral pact" with Ukip - meaning the Conservative Party would not field candidates in seats where Ukip had a better chance of winning.
"I am concerned that the two small-c conservative parties are undermining each other's base of support and that we risk losing the policies we want - particularly the referendum - by opposing each other so strongly," he told the Sky News Murnaghan show.
"It would be intelligent to co-operate where we can."
But the suggestion was rejected as "a barmy idea" by former minister Damian Green - who has warned Mr Cameron not to bend the party to the eurosceptic threat.
"We must at all costs and at all times resist the temptation to become Ukip-lite," he will tell the conference, the Sunday Times reported.
"The way to defeat Ukip is to explain why they are wrong, not to hint that they might be right.
"If the Conservative Party skitters towards Ukip, it strengthens Ukip."
Dismissing the idea of a pact, he said any deal should only be done after the election, should the Tories not gain an overall majority.
"What you don't do is go to the electorate before the election and say 'we are so unconfident in Conservative principles that we are prepared not stand and if you wanted to vote Conservative, tough."
In his final address to Conservative conference as an MP, Leader of the Commons William Hague blasted the Ukip defectors as "hypocritical and dishonest".
Mr Hague told the gathering in Birmingham: "We will go on fighting to hold that referendum and win that fight while those who have joined Ukip sit on the sidelines doing precisely nothing to bring it about.
"Let us be very frank, let me say it like a Yorkshireman - it is not only self-defeating and counter-productive, it is also hypocritical and dishonest to say you want to give people a choice on Europe and then help the election of a Labour government that will never give people that choice."
Mr Cameron hailed the former Tory leader - who first addressed conference as a 16-year-old in 1977 - as "a great Conservative" and said he had watched his speech from the conference floor "with pride and awe".
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan rejected the suggestion that Mr Newmark's actions had undermined his role in the Tory Women2Win campaign.
Mrs Morgan, who is also the women and equalities minister, said: "I think Brooks has done absolutely the right thing in resigning. He will be asked questions and have his own explanation.
"I actually think the British public are more sensible than that and they are going to realise this is an individual politician who has had a reason to resign.
"They will be looking at the issues and what is discussed at conference this week. We are talking about securing Britain's future, securing British families' future, and I think they will be able to distinguish between the two."