Michael Howard said he will not sack a Conservative candidate who used doctored photographs on his campaign literature.
Ed Matts, the party’s candidate for Dorset South, admitted falsifying a photograph of himself and Anne Widdecombe attending a protest against the deportation of an asylum seeker.
In the original photo, Matts holds a placard with a picture of Verah Kachepa and her four children who were facing deportation to Malawi.
And alongside him, former shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe holds a placard saying ‘Let them stay’.
But in the doctored version, shown on Matts’ campaign literature, the picture of Kachepa has been replaced with the slogan ‘Controlled immigration’, and Widdecombe’s slogan has been changed to ‘Not chaos and inhumanity’.
In a letter to the Tory leader, health secretary John Reid said Matts’ actions were a “disgrace” to politics.
Matts later issued a statement apologising for the image manipulation.
“I apologise for making a foolish mistake—I had no intention of causing any embarrassment,” he said.
“However, being involved in an individual asylum case is not inconsistent with the Conservative view that Britain’s asylum system is in urgent need of attention.”
The Conservative leader also gave his backing to the candidate, saying he would not be sacked.
“He shouldn’t have done what he did with the photograph and he has apologised for that, that was wrong,” Howard told the BBC.
“But let us not get distracted from the real issues here which are about whether we have a government which is prepared to get a grip on immigration.
“If we are to maintain good community relations, if we are to get a grip on security and maintain effective control of our public services we have to control immigration.
“We are the only party that is putting forward effective proposals to deal with that.”
John Reid said the Tory leader should apply the same standard to Matts as he had done to sacked MP Howard Flight, who was deselected after hinting publicly that the Tories would bring in further spending cuts than advertised if they won the election.
And Reid said that if the Conservative leader failed to sack Matts, he would be sending out a message that candidates can do anything they like to “fuel a wholly negative campaign”.
“To pose in one picture in support of an asylum seeker, and then doctor the same picture for a political stunt is sick,” he said.
“Mr Matts is a disgrace to Dorset, a disgrace to politics, and would be a disgrace to parliament if he were ever elected.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Menzies Campbell backed the health secretary’s call.
“Howard Flight was sacked by the Conservatives for telling the truth,” he said.
“Ed Matts, the Conservative candidate in Dorset South, should be sacked for telling lies.”
Dr Liam Fox, Conservative co-chairman, backed the Tory leader with a firm response to Reid’s letter.
He said the main point of the issue is that “it is quite possible to be concerned about the treatment of an individual in the prevailing immigration system and at the same time to believe the system is chaotic, unfair and needs urgent reform”.
“The immigration system is a shambles under this government and this is why we need a Conservative government to bring it under control,” he said.
Dr Fox said that Matts had apologised, saying such a move was “appropriate”.
“It would be far more appropriate if you were to apologise for the policies for which you are responsible which have led to thousands of people acquiring and dying from hospital acquired infections,” he added.
“Why do Labour ministers never apologise for anything?”
Reid has continued his quest to oust Matts as a candidate for Dorset South by travelling out to the constituency later on Tuesday to personally deliver his letter to the local Conservative association office.
The health secretary said the issue wasn’t the debate around immigration in general, but that the Tory candidate was saying one thing to one audience and a different thing to another audience.
And he maintained that the issue of re-touching photos could not be passed off as a joke.
Reid said the doctored photo had completely changed the Conservative position while giving a completely false impression to people about where they stand on issues.
It was “deception and duplicity of the highest level”.
“The question isn’t whether a candidate should be running on that basis—he shouldn’t,” Reid added.
“The question for Michael Howard is: Why did you sack one Tory candidate for telling the truth on a less sensitive subject, but immediately leapt to the defence of another candidate on a such a sensitive subject as asylum.”