Sir Keir Starmer fears the Tories will “salt the ground” by squandering money in pre-election giveaways which would leave an incoming Labour administration facing difficult spending decisions.
The Labour leader said he expected Jeremy Hunt to use the Budget and a possible second financial statement later this year to set political traps.
The Chancellor and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have indicated they hope to use any improvement in the public finances to cut taxes as the Tories seek to overturn Labour’s opinion poll lead.
If Labour wants to increase or even simply protect spending on public services that could mean Sir Keir being forced to say he would reverse promised tax cuts or seek alternative methods of funding – through increased taxes, borrowing or pinning his hopes on economic growth.
Sir Keir said public services “are in a much worse position” than they were when the Tories took office in 2010 and as prime minister his focus would be on growing the economy to generate funds.
That would mean breaking the “doom loop” of low growth and high taxes under the Conservatives, he told reporters in Westminster.
“There’s no doubt that after 14 years, our public services are in a much worse position than they were at the start,” Sir Keir said.
“And there’s a basic rule in politics, as far as I’m concerned, which is, whichever party you are, if you leave your country worse than when you found it, that is unforgivable. And that’s the position we’re in at the moment.”
He referred to a recent YouGov poll which suggested 62% of Britons would like the Government to prioritise public services over tax cuts.
“I did see the poll, whether the Chancellor read the poll and what he makes of it remains to be seen. And we’ll see what the Budget brings in early March.”
But he added: “I think it’s very obvious that they are trying to salt the ground. So they’re not acting in the national interest, they’re acting in the party interest.
“They briefed the autumn financial statement out as a series of traps for Keir Starmer and the Labour Party.
“Taking my Leader of the Opposition hat off, that means they have totally neglected the national interest.
“They are not even pretending that they are making decisions in the best interests of the country, they are making decisions in the best interests – as they see it – of the Tory party and their best chance of creating divides into the election.
“That’s why we’re in this mess.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Sir Keir labelled the Prime Minister “Mr 25 Tax Rises”, but he declined to say how he would address the tax burden if he entered No 10.
“I’m not going to set out lock, stock and barrel, what we’re going to say in our manifesto, before we’ve seen the Budget,” he said.
“We’ve got at least one fiscal event before the election, possibly two, depending on when it ends up being.”
But he said there was “no question” that Labour wants to “reduce the burden on working people”.
“Our first focus is going to be on growing the economy and making sure that the yield from the economy goes up, because there’s a reason we’ve got high taxes now, after 14 years, and the reason is because we’ve got low growth.
“This is the doom loop that they’re in. And we intend to break that doom loop.”
Conservative Chief Secretary to the Treasury Laura Trott said: “Despite previously supporting our tax cuts, Keir Starmer now says cutting taxes for working people is ‘salting the earth’.
“He is getting his excuses in early for raising taxes to pay for his £28 billion unfunded spending spree because he doesn’t have a plan.”