David Cameron has reignited the debate about immigration to Britain by declaring that the level has been "too high" since Labour came to power.
The Tory leader risked fresh criticism that he is "lurching to the right" to bolster his own position by saying that immigrants are putting "huge pressure" on public services.
He promised that a Tory government would impose limits on the number of people allowed to come to Britain from countries which join the European Union in future and on those from non-EU states.
Until now, Mr Cameron has played down immigration as an issue as part of his drive to shed the Tories' image as the "nasty party". Labour has recently accused him of returning to the "core vote" strategy of his three predecessors by raising issues such as crime and Europe.
Interviewed on BBC2's Newsnight programme last night, Mr Cameron said politicians had to combine "a careful use of language" on immigration with "tough and rigorous action". He accused Labour of combining, "loose, inflammatory language" with "weak, ineffective action".
He said: "It is about the pressure on schools, the pressure on hospitals, the pressure on housing."
In a wide-ranging 45-minute interview, the Tory leader insisted his party had "fire in its belly" despite falling behind Labour in the opinion polls and was ready for a general election.
He admitted the issue of shadow cabinet members holding lucrative jobs outside politics was a "fair point" but defended their right to hold them. On his own background and Eton education, he said: "I am wealthy, I have had a wonderfully secure and fortunate upbringing, and I went to a great school. But I don't think in our country today that that should disqualify you from talking about issues and from making the changes you want to see in this country."
What mattered was not bonuses paid to City high flyers but the gap between those at the bottom of the income scale and the mainstream in the middle, Mr Cameron said. He promised any Tory tax cuts would "help make the country stronger, fairer and help people climb the ladder of opportunity."
He insisted that Tory plans to reduce inheritance tax were not about helping the 6 per cent of estates currently covered, saying it was stealth tax that would soon affect millions of families.
He warned air passengers they would have to pay more to fly to help combat climate change but promised that higher green taxes would be matched by cuts in taxes on families.
Asked if his party had moved to the right, Mr Cameron said he had shown "complete consistency" with his policies.
"When people break the law, I am a Conservative, I've always been a Conservative," he said.