LONDON Prime Minister David Cameron must shed his elitist image and connect with ordinary voters, a senior party member said on Saturday, after the anti-EU UK Independence Party scored major gains in local polls at the expense of the Conservatives.
Discontent with immigration levels was a key factor behind UKIP's dramatic victory in Thursday's local council elections, in which it won over 25 percent of votes and recorded the best result for a party outside the big three since World War Two.
Cameron, who once called UKIP supporters "fruitcakes and closet racists", conceded his party had to work to win back disaffected voters, and he will try to regain the political initiative next week by outlining new measures on immigration.
"We need to show respect for people who've taken the choice to support this party and we're going to work really hard to win them back," he said.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage demanded big cuts in immigration during his campaign, playing on public concerns about the prospect of large numbers of Bulgarians and Romanians coming to Britain after they have full rights to work in the EU next year.
On Wednesday, Cameron's coalition government will outline measures to restrict the welfare benefits available to immigrants, particularly in the field of health.
But for the leader, who like several key advisers attended one of Britain's top private schools Eton College, the problem is one of image as well as substance.
NO MORE OLD ETONIANS
David Davis, a senior Conservative who challenged Cameron for the party leadership in 2005, said he risked appearing "out of touch" with voters he must win over if he wants to be re-elected in a national ballot in 2015.
"The fact is that if we want to win the next election, we have to break this impression of being privileged and out of touch," Davis wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
"That means more straight talking and fewer focus groups ... and please, please no more Old Etonian advisers."
The opposition Labour party has long accused Cameron's inner circle of being "posh boys", and the issue resurfaced last month when Jo Johnson, brother of London Mayor Boris and Cameron's friend at Eton, was named head of the government's policy unit.
Davis also argued for bringing forward a referendum on membership of the European Union, something Cameron has already promised to do if he wins in 2015 and after he has renegotiated Britain's position within the bloc.
Cameron may now go one step further and enshrine that pledge in law, ministers have hinted.
His Liberal Democrat coalition partners - one of Europe's most pro-EU parties - would not allow him to simply introduce a government bill to that effect but, the ministers say, there may be ways around that obstacle.
According to Davis, UKIP's policies on law and order, immigration, taxation, foreign affairs and Europe were like those of a simplified 1980s Conservative manifesto.
"So the electoral answers are Conservative ones," he wrote, "but the test of our response is less about how right-wing we are than how relevant we are to ordinary people."
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)