Ed Miliband faced criticism on Monday after the Labour leader’s poor performance in an ill-tempered radio interview was pounced on by the Conservatives in the final days of campaigning ahead of Thursday’s local elections.

The Tories were quick to brand Mr Miliband “weak” after the Labour leader found himself in political contortions over whether his plans to deliver a £12bn cut to value added tax – “for about a year” – would also increase borrowing.

Interviewed on the BBC’s World at One programme, Mr Miliband repeatedly refused to say whether his party’s economic plans would bring about a short-term rise in borrowing, despite his shadow chancellor Ed Balls saying it would.

The Labour leader was goaded for “refusing 10 times” to say whether his economic plans would push up borrowing.

“What I’m saying is that we would have that temporary VAT cut, that would contribute to growth and that would get borrowing down,” he said in a terse exchange. “The whole point about a VAT cut is it will get growth moving, and if you get growth moving you get more tax revenues in, and therefore you get borrowing down. That’s the point of what we are saying.”

Grant Shapps, Tory chairman, responded: “Ed Miliband is too weak to admit what his shadow chancellor Ed Balls has already said – that Labour’s plans mean more spending, more borrowing and more debt, exactly how Labour got us into this mess in the first place.”

Even the Labour leader’s own side were unimpressed. Dan Hodges, a Labour blogger, said Mr Miliband had been “taken apart” in the exchange.

With just three days of campaigning to go before voters in England and Wales elect nearly 2,400 council seats, tensions are rising between the three main parties.

Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader, accused both Labour and the Tories of abandoning the centre ground, as he criticised David Cameron for abandoning “compassionate” Conservatism for an “extreme” rightwing position. Mr Clegg said Labour was becoming little more than a “party of protest” as he sought to cleave to the centre ground.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are bracing themselves for a surge in Ukip support on the back of its strong showing in the Eastleigh by-election and improved polling in recent months.

Eurosceptic Tories on Monday used the threat of the UK Independence party to press Mr Cameron to enshrine in law his commitment to hold a referendum on EU membership in 2017.

“We need to accept that Ukip is not simply a protest party. Some of its membership have genuine concerns about the EU which we need to address,” said John Baron, MP for Basildon and Billericay, who organised a letter signed by more than 100 Tories demanding a referendum commitment be put into law before 2015. “People would know he [Cameron] was serious. Why, then, bother voting Ukip?”

The two parties have traded insults this week, with Ken Clarke branding Ukip’s candidates and supporters a “collection of clowns”. Nigel Farage, Ukip leader, dismissed the senior Tory as part of an “ossified elite” out of touch with real people. The Tories privately believe that support for Ukip will melt away at a general election but are alive to the short-term threat.

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