Theresa May has repeatedly refused to rule out tax rises under a future Conservative government in a campaign speech in Dudley.
Pressed by reporters on whether she would commit to her predecessor David Cameron’s tax and pensions pledges, the prime minister stressed the Tories were a party of low taxes and asked voters to “just look at what the Conservatives have done in government”.
Pitching herself as the only viable option for a secure Britain, May said the poll was “the most important election for this country in my lifetime, because this is an election which is about a future for our country”.
She framed the vote as a choice between “a strong and stable government” and a “coalition of chaos” led by Jeremy Corbyn. “Every vote that is cast for me and the Conservatives will strengthen my hand in the negotiations with the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors of Europe,” May said.
“We’ve already seen the other parties lining up to prop up Corbyn, we’ve seen it from the Liberal Democrats, we’ve seen it from Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP,” she said to a round of boos.
May said when she became prime minister there were claims and predictions of an immediate financial crash and economic damage, “but under the Conservatives we’ve seen consumer confidence remaining high”.
She continued: “Brexit isn’t just a process, it’s an opportunity … to make sure this really is a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few. But to do that we do need the certainty that this election will bring over the next five years.”
May’s comments came after the chancellor, Philip Hammond, hinted he would like to drop the party’s 2015 manifesto pledge not to raise income tax, VAT or national insurance contributions (NICs) during the lifetime of the parliament.
Attending the spring meeting of the IMF in Washington, Hammond – who was forced into a budget U-turn after critics said his changes to NICs for the self-employed breached that commitment – said he needed more “flexibility” in managing the economy.
His comments were seized on by Labour, who accused the Tories of planning “a tax bombshell” while the Liberal Democrats suggested they would hit “white van man”.
However, the Financial Times reported that aides to the chancellor were insisting no decision had been taken on whether to drop the tax pledge from the party’s manifesto.
The row came after May risked angering traditionalist Conservatives by reaffirming the government’s commitment to international aid spending while refusing to guarantee the “triple lock” for pensioners.
Her announcement, during a campaign visit to her Maidenhead constituency on Friday, that she would stick by Cameron’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid, was sharply criticised by some Tories.
The former party chairman Lord Tebbit told the Daily Telegraph: “It is a very bad start to the campaign to insist on increasing aid every year whilst there is not sufficient money for the NHS. It does not seem to make good politics to me.”
Labour and the Lib Dems have also seized on May’s refusal to say whether the Conservative manifesto would keep the triple lock, which guarantees the state pension increases each year by inflation, average earnings or 2.5% – whichever is highest.
The Lib Dems accused the Tories of “getting their betrayal in early” while Labour said they were abandoning the elderly.
Jeremy Corbyn, campaigning in the north–west of England on Saturday, said Labour would be using its 500,000-strong grassroots membership – the largest of any of the main parties – to get its message out to voters.
“This election is not a foregone conclusion. Labour’s campaigning is off to a flying start. We’re using our membership strength to put thousands of people on the streets, knocking on doors and handing out leaflets to take our message direct to voters,” he said.