Boris Johnson has launched an bizarre attack on Tory defectors to Ukip, joking that they were the type of people that have sex with vacuum cleaners.
Addressing a rally at the party's annual conference in Birmingham in the wake of the defection of two Tory MPs to Ukip, the London mayor remarked: "The EU commission wants to ban vacuum cleaners on the grounds that they are too powerful. If you do not handle your vacuum cleaner correctly, you may end up inhaling the hamster – the budgerigar through the bars of the cage.
"And I have read that there are some people – probably the type who are thinking of defecting to UKIP – who present themselves at A&E with barely credible injuries sustained through vacuum cleaner abuse."
Speaking at an event entitled, "How we win in 2015", Mr Johnson said he had turned down an approach from Nigel Farage 20 years ago and believed it would make more sense for the eurosceptic party's leader to defect to the Conservatives in order to defeat Labour and secure an in/out referendum on Britain's EU membership in next year's general election.
Mr Johnson said it was time for "the great conservative family" to unite to defeat Labour and for Ukip supporters to recognise that the only party capable of delivering their priorities is the Conservatives. He won a warm reception from hundreds of activists at the ConservativeHome rally, but there was not the frenzy seen over the last few years, when his arrival overshadowed events elsewhere in the conference.
In contrast to previous years, he failed to fill much more than half the seats in the cavernous hall booked for his appearance, which comes ahead of his keynote speech tomorrow.
Mr Johnson joked that he felt offended not to have had "so much as a whisper or a sniff or the tinsiest soupcon of a suggestion that I should defect to another party", as Tory MPs Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless have done. "I did meet Nigel Farage in a pub about 20 years ago, in the mid-1990s, and as is traditional in such cases, he pushed across the caviar and vodka that Moscow Central always use when they are trying to woo potential defectors," said Mr Johnson.
"And you know what I said to him? I said `No, Nigel, you join us'. I repeat my message today, because it is only the Conservatives who are able to deliver the kind of things he is talking about and it is only if the great conservative family unites and we stop Ed Miliband seizing back control of this country that we will be able to deliver the referendum that this country wants and deserves."
He added: "I say to the quitters, the splitters and the 'Kippers, there is only one party that can sort out the European issue, there is only party that is going to sort out the constitutional anomaly that allows Scottish MPs to vote on matters that only affect England when English MPs have no corresponding say over those questions in Scotland."
Mr Johnson dismissed suggestions that Mr Miliband is heading for 10 Downing Street, in next May's poll, describing the Labour leader as "virtually unelectable" and his flagship mansion tax plan as "utterly iniquitous" He predicted that the result in 2015 could be similar to the landslide which saw Margaret Thatcher returned to power in 1983 with a majority of 144.
Despite trailing in recent polls, Mr Johnson insisted that the Tories were "within a whisker" of Labour at a stage of the electoral cycle when they were 20 points behind in 1997, when they went down to crushing defeat at the hands of Tony Blair. "We are far closer at this stage in the campaign than I was in London in 2008," said the Mayor.
"When (voters) see the hard decisions that have been taken by this Government and when they see that we have a virtually unelectable opposition and that we have the right leader in David Cameron, and when you look at the vast leads that this party enjoys on the key questions of the economy and prime ministerial qualities, I think they will come over in droves. If we get this right, this election campaign could be more like 1983 than 1997.
"The plane is on the runway, we are picking up airspeed - I'm talking about the economy here - the nose is finally starting to lift and out of the corner of our eyes over the tarmac we can see Balls and Miliband in their clapped-out jalopy desperately trying to catch us. This is the moment to pull back the joystick and roar over their heads and give this country wings. Let us begin that work by uniting, by fighting and by winning an overall Conservative majority in 2015."
Answering questions from Tory activists, Mr Johnson acknowledged the concerns of foreign investors about the possibility of a British exit form the EU, but said the UK would be able to flourish in a European free trade zone even if the country voted to leave the 28-member bloc.
The Mayor said his "ideal situation" would be for changes which would allow the UK to remain within a reformed EU. "There's no doubt at all that those of us who think that Britain will be fine outside the current arrangements, we have to allay the anxieties of international investors, direct investors into this country," he said. "There's no question that they are concerned and their concerns need to be addressed."
But he said the rest of Europe would be "insane" to sever trade ties with the UK even if it left the EU. "At the very least, even if we couldn't remain within the current EU, we would remain within that free trade zone. If you look at the balance of trade between us and the rest of the EU, it's solidly in their favour. They would be absolutely nuts to want us to depart fully. I think it would be very easy to set up a free trade, tariff free zone."
He added: "What I'm trying to argue is that we could remain, on either view in the single market or the common market and it would be absolutely insane and self-destructive of the other nations to want to keep us out. My ideal solution is that you achieve a renegotiation that yields the best of both worlds, and that is something that ought to be popular, and is popular, with loads of people around the EU, as you saw in the recent European elections.
"The real tragedy is that Brussels hasn't listened to that message that was so clear from the European elections. I think it's going to be up to us and David Cameron to deliver real change in Europe."