For the first time in more than 20 years, the Conservatives are planning to go into the next election without making any specific promises on tax cuts, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, signalled on Thursday.
?Thanks to the state of the public finances, up-front promises of tax cuts are very unlikely to be on offer at the next election,? he told a business audience in Manchester. ?Some may say that this is somehow un-Conservative. I say Conservatives win the public?s trust when they put economic stability first.?
The decision by the main opposition party to fight a general election without pledging tax cuts reflects the determination of Conservative leader David Cameron to challenge Labour for the political centre ground.
Mr Osborne acknowledged that the move would antagonise some on his party?s right wing, already uneasy about Mr Cameron?s decision to abandon other traditional Tory policies, such as support for grammar schools.
But Mr Osborne was unrepentant, saying: ?This will be a disappointment to a few in my party. They think the key to winning general elections is to make up-front promises of tax cuts, even though we have fought the last three on that promise and lost all three of them.?
The Tory decision to try to neuter voters? fears they would cut public services to pay for tax cuts is the mirror image of Labour?s successful tactics in 1997, when Gordon Brown sought to quell fears about higher public spending by promising not to increase income tax rates.
Mr Osborne rejected suggestions that the two main parties would now be fighting the next election on almost identical ideologies. Voters would have a ?clear choice? between the Tories? aim of long-term reductions in the size of the state and level of taxation and the chancellor?s commitment to ?ever-higher taxes, more regulation and an ever-growing state,? he said.
The government attacked the Tory policy, saying it showed the party was ?totally confused? about its fiscal and economic stance. Stephen Timms, chief secretary to the Treasury, said Mr Osborne had moved from advocating flat taxes to ?promising lower spending on public services but no reduction in taxes, which is the worst of all worlds.?
The Tory leadership will not allow such attacks to panic them into tax cut promises closer to the election, Mr Osborne told the Institute of Directors. ?The public are rightly very sceptical about politicians who promise tax cuts at elections. If I got up and said ?Vote for me today, I?m going to deliver tax cuts tomorrow?, people might say he?s a new face but is he credible??