BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) – A schism over Europe cast a pall over the final day of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative party conference, the last before a national election next year, after a party donor became the latest figure to defect to the anti-EU UKIP party.
Hours before Cameron was due to deliver a keynote speech, Arron Banks, a businessman who electoral records show has given tens of thousands of pounds to Cameron’s party, said he was switching his support to the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
His move follows that of two Conservative lawmakers to UKIP, which wants an immediate British EU exit and sharp curbs on immigration, and will ratchet up fears in Cameron’s party that UKIP will split the centre-right vote in May 2015 and allow the opposition Labour party to win.
Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, hailed the defection, which follows that of two Conservative lawmakers, as a sign his insurgent party was attracting big financial backers to bankroll what he has described as an earthquake in British politics.
“The other parties are losing Councillors, MPs and backers to UKIP, not only voters, and they are all playing their part in changing the course of politics in the UK for good,” Farage said in a statement. “Our people’s army is really starting to grow”.
Cameron’s party played down the defection with William Hague, a senior Conservative lawmaker, saying Banks was not a senior figure in the party.
“I’ve never heard of him so we are not going to get too upset about that,” Hague told BBC radio.
“It’s certainly not going to overshadow the prime minister’s speech today that someone we haven’t heard of has gone to UKIP.
Trailing the opposition Labour party in most opinion polls, Cameron is straining to pacify the Eurosceptic wing of his own party which wants him to offer firmer commitments on changing Britain’s relationship with Europe.
He has promised to renegotiate Britain’s EU ties if re-elected before holding an EU membership referendum in 2017, but has been coy about spelling out what he wants to change with some Conservatives sceptical about the strength of his resolve.
Cameron is due to deliver a keynote speech to his party’s annual conference later on Wednesday which he is expected to use to try to calm jitters and to promise new funding for Britain’s National Health Service, an important domestic issue that voters list as one of their priorities.
But just hours before he was due to speak, Banks made his bombshell announcement, saying UKIP had won him over.
“Being a member of the EU is like having a first class ticket on the Titanic,” he added, referring to the doomed ocean liner. “Economically, remaining in the EU is unsustainable.”
UKIP said Banks would present it with a cheque for 100,000 pounds (161,680 US dollar) later on Wednesday.
The timing of the news was designed to embarrass the British leader and persuade other Conservatives to follow suit.
Increasingly Eurosceptic rhetoric has stoked concerns among some big business leaders who largely support Britain’s EU membership.
Conservative lawmaker John Redwood even cautioned big business to keep out of the EU debate, saying its job was to keep shareholders, employees and customers happy rather than playing politics.
“Big business, recognise you have not been good at judging the best interests of the UK,” Redwood said in a statement. Cameron is expected to promise increased healthcare spending in his speech if voters re-elect him next year – a political carrot aimed at balancing the stick of welfare cuts set out by his finance minister earlier in the week.
His speech will attempt to overcome a slew of negative headlines generated by finance minister George Osborne on Monday, who set out plans to freeze welfare payments and extend swingeing government spending cuts to pull the country’s public finances out of the red.
“I didn’t come into politics to make the lines on the graphs go in the right direction,” Cameron will say, according to extracts of his speech in comments designed to address criticism that his centre-right party prioritises deficit reduction over social security issues.
Opinion polls show that the future of Britain’s internationally-renowned National Health Service (NHS) is a key issue for voters, and that the opposition Labour party is more trusted to protect the service than the Conservatives.
Cameron will attempt to claw back some ground on the issue with a pledge to increase the NHS budget and insulate it from the drastic cuts faced by other government departments over the coming years as part of the drive to balance Britain’s books.
“The next Conservative government will protect the NHS budget and continue to invest more,” Cameron will say.