NIGEL Farage has dismissed a welter of criticism over “racist” posters launching Ukip’s campaign for the European and local elections.
The party leader, on a visit to Sheffield, said rivals were “screaming blue murder” over the images because they did not want to have an “honest conversation” about immigration.
The robust defence came after religious figures joined MPs in condemning the images, funded with £1.5 million from millionaire Yorkshire businessman and ex-Tory donor Paul Sykes.
It is Ukip’s biggest ever publicity drive, as the party aims to achieve a political earthquake by topping the polls on May 22.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said it was wrong to use expressions that suggest “dismay or distress at all these people coming to this country”.
Tory backbencher Nicholas Soames posted on Twitter: “At a time when our country really needs to come together, the Ukip advertising campaign is deeply divisive, offensive and ignorant.”
Labour MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “Ukip have lowered the tone of the European debate with these spiteful and inaccurate claims on immigration which seek only to divide communities.”
But Mr Farage told the BBC: “The fact that Westminster hate it and want to scream blue murder over it is because they have opened up the doors, they have fundamentally changed the lives of millions of people and they would rather we did not talk about it and just brush it under the carpet.”
The Ukip posters, which are to be displayed at hundreds of billboard sites across the country, carry stark warnings that “British workers are hit hard by unlimited foreign labour”.
Another says that 26 million people in Europe are looking for work, adding, with a picture of a finger pointing at the reader, “and whose job are they after?”.
Under the slogan “Take back control of our country”, others complain that 75% of British laws are made in Brussels and that UK taxpayers fund the “celebrity lifestyle” of EU bureaucrats.
Critics compared the immigration posters with those used in the past by the far-right British National Party, and Labour MP Mike Gapes said they were “racist” and appealed to “decent” voters to turn out to oppose Ukip.
Mr Farage said the party had known it was going to ruffle feathers among the “chattering classes”.
He stressed that Ukip was not accusing foreigners of “stealing” jobs from Britons, but high levels of immigration from Europe had only been good for big business and rich people who wanted cheap nannies.
The poster campaign was highlighting the need to regain “control of our borders”, he said.
Ukip says that its fast-rising membership has now passed 36,000 - only around 8,000 behind the Liberal Democrats and on course to overtake Nick Clegg’s junior coalition party by the time of the 2015 general election.
Mr Clegg appealed for help from Labour and pro-EU Tories to counter Ukip’s arguments in the run-up to May 22 and dismissed Mr Farage’s claims to be an insurgent.
He wrote in The Guardian that Ukip is part of the anti-Brussels “establishment” and its leader is the sort of professional politician he accused others of being.
“Of all Nigel Farage’s far-fetched claims - and there are many - the most outlandish is the idea that Ukip’s call for an exit is the insurgents’ battle cry,” he said.
“What poppycock. For a start, Farage is every bit the professional politician he enthusiastically reviles. He and I were elected to the European Parliament on the same day in 1999. I left after five years. The Ukip leader is still there.
“More important, there is nothing remotely new about his party’s ambitions. Ukip is simply the fresh face of a long-standing Eurosceptic establishment, supported by many in the Tory Party and significant parts of the press.”
Mr Clegg acknowledged that a British exit from the EU was now “plausible” but insisted he would happily take on Mr Farage in more televised debates - despite being widely seen as having lost support to him after the two already broadcast.
Admitting that the pro-EU case lacked “volume”, he said: “The Lib Dems have started this debate - but we cannot win it alone.
“We want to work with others to deliver the firepower needed to challenge the Eurosceptic establishment.
“If Labour is still a pro-European party, it needs to come off the fence. Tory modernisers must risk the wrath of their backbenchers and speak out.”
Meanwhile, Poland’s ambassador to the UK questioned the appetite of his countrymen any longer to seek work in the UK, saying wages were now higher in his country.
“This huge wave of people who came to EU countries trying to get well-paid jobs is over now,” he told The Independent, 10 years after Poland joined the EU.
“There are more opportunities in Poland, we have had huge economic success, wages are higher in Poland now and there are more jobs in many parts of Poland, so I think this is over.
“We are getting out of the crisis and there are more and more opportunities in Poland. Of course people would like to stay in Poland and not live abroad. They love the UK but if you are at home there is no place like home.”
The choice of Sheffield to launch the campaign will be seen as an attempt to remind voters of the debates between Mr Farage and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, one of the city’s MPs, which polls suggest were won by the Ukip leader.
Mr Sykes, best known for his investments in Meadowhall and the redevelopment of Leeds’s Victoria Quarter, told The Yorkshire Post he believed a substantial Ukip vote on May 22 could force the other parties to support the holding of a referendum on the UK’s membership of European Union as early as next year.
“The poster represents the flag being eroded and something else taking its place. It may jump off the page at you but it is the truth of what is happening.
“It is time to spell it out really. It makes it very very clear we are no longer self-governing, we don’t make our laws or control our borders. What is Parliament for?”
Mr Sykes, originally from Barnsley and now living in North Yorkshire, said Mr Clegg had made a mistake by taking part in debates with Mr Farage which had “opened up a lot more interest in Ukip”.
He was also dismissive of David Cameron’s promise of a referendum after the next General Election.
“Surely the British public don’t want to hang about until 2017 waiting for the Prime Minister who has made it absolutely crystal clear he wants to stay in the EU?” he said.
Branding May 22, the day of the European elections, an EU referendum “in all but name”, Mr Sykes added: “If this was something chosen by the general public, if they had voted for it in the first place, it wouldn’t suit me but I would move on.
“But I am staying around to give the public a chance to make their minds up and get back to self-governing and getting our borders back.”
He added: “I am supporting the biggest advertising campaign in Ukip’s history to bring home to the British people what is at stake.
“The European elections are the most important for many years.
“We have the chance to support a party that represents a complete break with the past. The other parties, whatever their merits, are content to work within the existing Brussels straitjacket.
Ukip won one of Yorkshire’s six seats in the European Parliament at the last election although following controversy last year its MEP, Godfrey Bloom, became an independent.
Mr Clegg has branded the Liberal Democrats as the ‘party of IN’ ahead of the election and promised as “passionate defence of British interests in Europe” while Mr Cameron is looking to position the Conservatives as the moderate alternative to the “extremes” offered by Ukip and the Lib Dems.
Critics compared the immigration posters with those used in the past by the far-right British National Party.
Labour MP Mike Gapes said they were “racist” and appealed to “all decent British Commonwealth and EU citizens” to register to vote in May’s polls.
But Mr Farage, whose party is tipped to push the Conservatives into third place and perhaps win the election outright, dismissed the concerns of the “chattering classes”.