Tory veteran Ken Clarke has criticised his colleagues for attempting to imitate Ukip instead of taking on Nigel Farage's "nasty" party. The former chancellor blamed his party's "neurotic" internal divisions over Europe for the Tory failure to secure an outright election win since 1992.
Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Mr Clarke said Europe was "not the most important issue" for voters but had come to dominate the Tories. The eve-of-conference defection of Mark Reckless to Ukip, following Douglas Carswell in leaving the Tory ranks, has ensured that the issue of the EU has been extensively discussed at the party gathering.
But Mr Clarke, one of the most prominent pro-European voices in the Tory party, criticised the way the Conservatives had handled the rise of Ukip. He said: "One thing we don't do, we imitate Ukip, we don't actually explain why we think it's rather a nasty organisation and it's basic case is folly.
"It is not true that we have lost control of immigration and it is all now run from Brussels. It's not true that you can have a single market without the free movement of labour. It's not actually true that if people come to work here they do anything other but contribute to our economy.
"It's not true that the EU requires us to have the door open to people who just come here for benefits or just come here for healthcare. And if we tighten up our own rules and we tighten up our own administration you can stop that, as other countries wish to do."
David Cameron has promised an in/out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017 after a process of renegotiating the UK's relationship with Brussels. Mr Clarke said that while it was important to debate the issue of Europe, it should be done in a "sensible" way.
He said: "I hope the party as a whole will heed - I don't think it will - the message to stop banging on about Europe, which David Cameron gave some time ago." While it was right to have a debate about Europe, "It's not the most important issue for the electorate, it's not going to determine a lot of people's votes, but it is an extremely important one for the future of the country".
"So of course you debate it, but what I think pro-Europeans have got to try and do is have a sensible, normal, intelligent debate on the subject rather than the neurotic one which has rather dominated our party for the last 20 years and in my opinion is the principal reason why we've failed to win an election for two decades.
"The party I used to belong to did win elections, it was pro-European and it didn't get quite so obsessive about foreigners and so on." Mr Clarke said it was important to learn the lessons of the Scottish referendum ahead of the 2017 vote, and not run a negative campaign focused on the risks of leaving the EU.
He said: "It will be a disaster for the United Kingdom if we leave the European Union, but that should not be at the forefront of our presentation. Wholly negative campaigning, even if the alarms you are raising are actually authentic and true, has its limitations."
Instead, he said: "What we have to try to contribute to the British debate on Europe, which is totally lacking at the moment, is some inkling for the general public of what the positive advantages are about being in the European Union.
"I personally think that our political role in the modern world, our ability to be of use to our allies - but most importantly to have an influence on events that threaten our interests, or where our political interests could be promoted - totally depends on our part as one of the leading powers in the European Union if we can act with our allies in developing common foreign and security policy, in appropriate areas, to a greater extent."
The focus of the renegotiation should be on "practical economic reforms" rather than some of the demands being made by Eurosceptics, for whom "reform usually involves demanding that David Cameron demands things which are incompatible with our future and continued membership of the union."
Mr Clarke called for a more coherent European foreign and security policy role, especially in response to Vladmir Putin's actions in Ukraine. He suggested that the Russians had "played a blinder and are still doing so" in catching the EU off-guard, and added that "future relationships with Putin's Russia have to be rethought".
Mr Clarke said: "It's time that the Germans, the British, the Poles and the French actually sat down and sorted out exactly how we are going to handle these things. It is no good just looking to the Americans, and it will give us the chance in the other areas where we act with our allies, like the currently topical one in Syria, of working out how we can retain the European voice influentially in the world as a whole, most importantly for the parts of the world where we could be directly threatened if we start being encircled by hostile and unpredictable regimes."
But as debate continued to rage at the conference, eurosceptic MP Bernard Jenkin warned that the Tories risked defeat unless David Cameron set out a desire for "fundamental reform" in the manifesto. Challenging the Prime Minister to "put flesh on the bone" of his stated desire to return powers to the UK - he said Mr Cameron's failure to set out the terms of the negotiation was leaving a dangerous vacuum.
"To win the election we have to unite our party - and we have to win this election - we must have a clear and coherent policy that reflects the Prime Minister's desire for a new relationship with our European partners," he told a fringe meeting. Otherwise people will feel what we are offering is more of the same and we will not have the mandate to deliver the negotiations.
"We need to put down our bottom line. We need to be open and honest with our European partners about what it is in our vital national interest to have at the end of this negotiation. What we negotiate about is how they wish to accommodate that bottom line and if they can't accommodate it we will have to reach a deal from outside the treaties."
He went on: "If we want to control who comes in and out of our country from the European Union, we simply need to get the whole thing back. This is one of the great flaws of this renegotiation package which I think the Prime Minister is currently thinking about: you cannot have two different parliaments making two different kinds of law in the same area.
"One will win and in this case it will always be the European Parliament and the European Commission. Whatever we might think we've agreed in some renegotiation package it will be eroded and set back by the European Court of Justice over time.
"Unless we get substantial treaty change then everything stays the same.
"What is not negotiable is our right of self determination, our right to set our laws in our own national interest, the right to call time on laws being imposed on us that are against our vital national interest. This is what democracy is all about, for parliaments and government to make the laws as you have directed them, not for some group of foreign powers to override us.
"He has got to put flesh on the bones, he can't say these things and then pretend that things can remain more or less the same with all these treaties."
The UK could not "leave Europe" he said - describing as the "fallacy of Europe" the fact that trying to would mean quadrupling the number of British officials in Brussels to try to negotiate an exit. But he added: "The sad thing about the Prime Minister agreeing to this very polarising debate around the question 'in or out' is that its polarises the debate around 'in or out' when we are not quite sure what 'in' means and we are not quite sure what 'out' means.
"Somehow we have got to steer our manifesto, negotiation, debate about our negotiation towards the referendum to make sure the 'in/out' question on the ballot paper actually means what we want it to mean. If we want a new relationship with our European partners, there has got to be fundamental change in that relationship.
"It cannot be an amelioration, a shading at the fringes of the existing agreements. As a party we opposed much of Maastricht, we opposed Nice, we opposed Amsterdam, we opposed the European constitution that became the Lisbon Treaty.
"We have been part of a coalition that has been effectively implementing the Lisbon Treaty. Later this month we will be asked to ratify in home and justice affairs irrevocable transfers to the European Union. This is all completely unacceptable to the Conservative Party."
Mr Jenkin, who chairs the Commons public administration select committee, suggested it might recommend the creation of "a whole new sub-department" in Whitehall to handle negotiations. Former minister MP Bob Neill, who is steering a fresh attempt to get a referendum bill through Parliament to enshrine the promise of a 2017 vote in legislation, said it would be counter-productive to show the UK's hand by setting out bottom lines in advance.
But he agreed that there had to be a fundamental change and that Tories "should not be afraid to say (that) if we cannot get what is in our national interest, we leave".