Conservatives aim for lower taxes

BIRMINGHAM (Reuters) - The Conservatives pledged on Monday to try to cut taxes and help families hit by the global financial crisis, in a drive to win voters and expand their opinion poll lead over Labour.

Conservative Shadow Chancellor George Osborne speaks at their spring forum in Gateshead, northern England, March 14, 2008. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

Fleshing out his party’s policies at its annual conference, economic affairs spokesman George Osborne also promised to rein in government deficits and freeze council tax, an unpopular local levy, for two years.

The Conservatives had a 20 point lead over Labour earlier this year, suggesting they would win an election -- due by 2010 -- by a landslide. Their lead has halved in recent days as Prime Minister Gordon Brown recovered voter support for his handling of the financial crisis.

“The whole country is having to tighten its belt and save money. So too should their government,” Osborne said.

After 11 years in opposition, the Conservative Party wants to re-establish its economic credibility and convince voters it could handle competently the turmoil that has forced the Labour government to nationalise two mortgage lenders this year.

On Sunday, Conservative leader David Cameron and Osborne unveiled their plan to tackle the crisis, accusing Brown of presiding over a debt-fuelled boom that has turned to bust.

In his speech on Monday, made shortly after the government nationalised mortgage bank Bradford and Bingley, Osborne made further pledges.

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“I want to put money back into the pockets of families and help businesses compete. It is the aspiration and ambition of this party that we leave office with taxes lower than when we came in,” Osborne told party members.

“But I am not prepared to play fast and loose with the national debt in the pursuit of low taxes,” he said, adding that the level of government borrowing would make upfront cuts hard.

“We will put the government finances on a path out of the red and into the black. Our goal over time will be to balance the current budget and ensure falling national debt,” he said.

Some Labour members fear Brown’s low popularity ratings could help them lose the next election, but Brown feels he has time to revive his support.

The Confederation of British Industry, an influential business lobby group, welcomed the Conservative plans to establish a strong economy as “innovative and far-reaching.”

“The proposals for tax simplification and greater fiscal responsibility will be welcomed by business and will be echoed by the CBI when it publishes its pre-budget representations shortly,” CBI Director-General Richard Lambert said.

Osborne, trying to assure voters the Conservatives would not be soft on those in the City who have contributed to the financial crisis, said bankers who take risks must bear the cost.

“If you pay yourself sums far beyond what anyone else in any other walk of life does, then be prepared to lose it when you make mistakes,” he said to applause.

Editing by Tim Pearce