LONDON, April 22, (Agencies): British Prime Minister Theresa May refused on Saturday to rule out an increase in personal taxes if she wins a June 8 election after her finance minister said fiscal pledges had limited his ability to manage the economy.
May and her chancellor, Philip Hammond, were forced earlier this year to scrap a planned rise in an employment levy only days after it was announced following criticism that the measure breached 2015 party election promises.
May’s surprise decision to call an election on June 8 has raised speculation that her Conservative 2017 manifesto will abandon commitments not to raise the rate of value-added tax, income tax or the national insurance payroll tax in order to help reduce the budget deficit.
Appearing at a campaign event in central England, May refused to say whether she could rule out higher taxes when asked three times by reporters.
“At this election people are going to have a very clear choice, between a Conservative Party which always has been, is and will continue to be a party that believes in lower taxes.
“Or the choice is a Labour Party whose natural instinct is to always raise taxes. That is the choice, lower taxes under the Conservatives or higher taxes under Labour.”
Hammond raised the issue of higher taxes on Friday when he told reporters on a trip to Washington that he wanted Britain to be a “sensibly taxed” economy that did not run a budget deficit.
“It’s self-evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did, and do today, strain the ability of the government to manage the economy flexibly,” he said.
Polls give May’s governing Conservative party a lead of around 20 percentage points, enough to give her a much bigger majority that she hopes will strengthen her hand when negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union over the next two years.
Meanwhile, with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives dominating Britain’s opinion polls, opposition MPs are bracing for a fierce election fight — none more so than in Chester, where Labour’s majority is just 93.
The Roman fortress town in north-west England has long been a political bellwether, going Labour with the rest of Britain in 1997 and Conservative in 2010 — and it is now a key battleground for the June 8 snap election.
As elsewhere in the country, the outcome will depend in part on how the debate is framed — whether on local issues, party leadership, the government’s record, or Britain’s looming exit from the European Union.
In national opinion polls, Labour is running up to 24 points behind May’s Conservatives — but Chester MP Chris Matheson, who won the seat with the slimmest of margins in 2015, is bullish.
“We had a fight on our hands last time and we won, and we’ve got a fight on our hands this time — and we’re going to win as well,” he told AFP.
His local party says it is ready for the campaign — while the Conservatives have yet to even choose a parliamentary candidate.
Local Tories are playing down expectations, admitting they were “bruised” by their defeat two years ago, which bucked the national trend — and also saw them lose control of the local council.
“It’s not a shoo-in. We’ve got nothing to lose now and we really hope to win,” said city councillor Pamela Hall.
But analysts say that Chester, an increasingly affluent pocket of Labour’s north-west heartland, is deeply vulnerable.
“This must be at the top of Theresa May’s hitlist of constituencies to win from Labour to boost her majority,” said Simon Lee, senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull.
May called the vote this week, accusing opposition parties of seeking to disrupt Brexit and saying that only she provides the “strong and stable leadership” needed as Britain heads into negotiations with the EU.
“I want Theresa May in charge to sort out Brexit,” said Gina Mayne-Flower, a 60-year-old in Chester who used to run her own business.
“She knows what she’s doing,” she told AFP, adding of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: “I don’t think he is up to the job.”
Labour has struggled to define a clear message on Brexit, but says the election is about change and has promised to stand up to the “cosy elites” and improve public services.
Accusations of underfunding in the state-run National Health Service (NHS) and schools resonate with Chester voters — as do the government’s cuts to welfare.
May has promised to stand up for “ordinary working families”, but this provokes a snort of derision from many people here.
“The Conservative party is full of shit. They’re cutting all my benefits,” said Carla Futcher, a 26-year-old carer with four children.
Futcher lives in Blacon, an area of Chester where Labour won a council by-election with an increased majority on Thursday.
But she is no fan of Corbyn — “no comment” — and other traditional Labour voters are also less than enthusiastic about their party.
“On the economy, that’s where Labour falls down,” said Thomas Mawdsley, a 24-year-old software engineer.
Many Labour MPs view Corbyn as an electoral liability, rejecting his left-wing views as impractical, and are already seeking to distance themselves from him in the campaign.
Matheson joined a mass revolt against Corbyn last year — but now insists he wants him to become prime minister, describing him as “decent and honest”.
However, he would not say whether the party leader would be on his campaign literature.
“The Corbyn issue is sensitive. Some marginal MPs will try to play a local campaign,” said Patrick Diamond, a politics lecturer at Queen Mary University of London.
But he warned they cannot control the Conservative party machine, which two years ago proved ruthlessly effective in targeting voters through mailshots.
“On the ground things might look evenly matched, but the sheer financial advantage of the Conservatives means it isn’t.”