Grant Shapps should not be blamed for the controversial Conservative Party 'beer and bingo' poster that threatened to overshadow George Osborne's Budget, senior Tory minister Baroness Warsi has said.
In an interview with the The Huffington Post UK, Warsi jumped to Shapps' defence and argued that he should not "carry the can" for the PR disaster. The outspoken Foreign Office minister and former party chair also attacked Ukip for gaining votes from the "far-right" and said David Cameron was correct when he dismissed Nigel Farage's party as "fruitcakes" and "racists".
On the evening of the Budget, party chairman Shapps tweeted a campaign poster that promoted tax cuts on bingo and beer as evidence that the government was focused on helping "hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy".
Warsi's intervention is striking given she was sacked as party chairman in 2012 in order to make way for Shapps. "The chairman of the party is at the top of a very big organisation and there's lots of stuff that's done in the chairman's name which the whole organisation has been part of," she said.
"I think some of the attacks on Grant Shapps have been incredibly unfair because he's been made to carry the can of decisions which probably involved a whole load of other people before that poster came out."
It has been reported that the controversial poster was thought up in the Treasury and signed off by the chancellor. Asked if she thought George Osborne was behind the poster, Warsi said: "Well, I don’t know that." She added: "But I’m not convinced [Shapps] should carry the can for this."
This controversial advert caused a huge backlash against Shapps
The Tory peer said that ahead of May's European elections Conservative politicians were "all being much more restrained and much more diplomatic about [Ukip]." But she added: "I don’t think I could have put it any better than the way the prime minister put it when he described them many years ago."
Asked if she believed BNP voters were sill defecting to Ukip, as she controversially claimed in May 2012, she said the Ukip vote "comes from the Tory Party [and] the Labour Party but I do think there’s a chunk of it that comes from the far-right".
She continued: "Nigel Farage is trying to change his party and how successful he is in that will determine whether the label the prime minister gave [Ukip], all those years ago, sticks."
In 2006, David Cameron famously referred to Ukip as a party of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists". In the wake of the 2012 local election results that saw the Tories hammered in the polls and Ukip surge, the prime minister said he would in future "show respect" and insisted his ministers should not insult the anti-EU party.
Warsi's criticism comes ahead of Wednesday's second head-to-head debate between Farage and Nick Clegg. Many Tory MPs are worried that the first debate, which Farage was widely seen to have won, will have helped the Ukip leader further split the centre-right vote ahead of the 2015 general election.
But she warned her colleagues not to try and move further to the right to fight off the threat. "The one thing that no party can do is out-Ukip Ukip to win those voters back," Warsi said.
On Friday, the Spectator reported that Warsi could be sacked in the next reshuffle, with an unnamed minister saying: "She should be dropped down a hole and a lid put on the top." A friend of the Tory peer dismissed the report, telling HuffPost UK: "Some people in the party have been playing this same old record for years. Sayeeda's record - and background - speaks for itself. The only victor in this kind of speculation if Ed Miliband."
Labour peer Lord Wood, a member of the shadow cabinet and adviser to Miliband, told HuffPost UK that Warsi has had to "overcome scepticism and some degree of snobbishness from her own Tory benches", adding: "I like the fact that she speaks her mind".
In the full interview with The Huffington Post UK's Mehdi Hasan, Baroness Warsi also:
* warns of the dangers of electoral fraud in 'Asian communities' at the next general election, specifically in relation to postal votes, and suggests it could cost the Tories a Commons majority;
* discusses her clash with Michael Gove over Islamophobia and the government's counter-extremism agenda;
* questions the credentials of Quilliam Foundation boss Maajid Nawaz, who has advised the prime minister on extremism ("Let's not reward those who who created the problem in the first place");
* says the number of women at the cabinet table "needs to increase";
* admits she was part of "a political party which made the wrong judgement" on genocide in the Balkans in the mid-1990s;
* denounces atheist academic Richard Dawkins as a "secular fundamentalist".