Labour will stamp on the green shoots of recovery if the party remains in power, shadow chancellor George Osborne said today as he unveiled the latest Conservative campaign poster.
Gordon Brown is expected to fire the starting gun for the general election campaign tomorrow when it is thought the Prime Minister will go to Buckingham Palace to seek a dissolution of Parliament, setting the stage for an election on 6 May.
The Conservatives today said Labour's plans to increase National Insurance (NI) contributions would kill the economic recovery if the party clings on to power.
The Tories' latest campaign poster shows a bleak landscape with just one green shoot emerging from the barren ground.
A boot bearing the words Jobs Tax on its toecap looms over the tiny plant, as if just about to crush it.
"The choice in this election is very, very clear. You have either got Labour stamping out the recovery, stamping on the green shoots, or the Conservatives avoiding the jobs tax," Mr Osborne said.
He estimated that Labour's planned increase in National Insurance contributions would cost the NHS, the country's largest employer, £200 million.
"I think that money could be better used to help the many thousands of people in Britain who can't get access to new cancer treatments."
He added: "I think it comes down to priorities. Do we want the money going on additional National Insurance in the NHS or on new cancer drugs?"
The poster, which has the headline Brown Recovery Plan, also shows a second boot bearing the words More Debt.
Mr Osborne said the Conservatives could avoid the NI rise by cutting "wasteful government spending".
He said Chancellor Alistair Darling had admitted there was waste but did not seem willing to tackle it now.
"How can cutting wasteful government spending risk anything?" he said.
"This is taxpayers' money."
Mr Osborne said a Conservative government would freeze major IT projects and negotiate better deals with suppliers.
Mr Darling today said the planned rise in National Insurance contributions was vital to the economy and would not cost jobs.
The Chancellor dismissed criticism from business leaders that the move was a "tax on jobs".
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the NI rise was an essential part of his wider package for consolidating and building on the economic recovery.
The Conservatives said their calculations showed the revenue the Treasury received from NI had risen by 22 per cent in real terms since 2001-02, five times the 4 per cent growth in income tax receipts over the same period.
They said that while the amount the average family paid in income tax had risen by £47, from £5,461 in 2001-02 to £5,508, their NI contributions had gone up from £2,725 to £3,239 - an increase of £514.
Mr Osborne has said the cuts, needed to pay for the decision not to go ahead with the NI increase on incomes under £45,000, would be achieved through efficiency savings.
However Mr Brown said it would mean taking money out of the economy at a time when continuing support is essential.
"This is not the right time to unsettle the economy by pulling out money that is necessary to support the recovery," he told the Financial Times.
In his latest podcast on the Downing Street website, he even drew a comparison with Wayne Rooney's foot injury to make his point.
"After an injury you need support to recover, you need support to get back to match fitness, you need support to get back your full strength and then go on to lift the World Cup. So with the economy - we're not back to full fitness, we need to maintain support," he said.
"If we try and jump off the treatment table as if nothing had happened, we'll do more damage to the economy - and frankly that means we risk a double-dip recession. I think that's a risk we can't afford to take."
Meanwhile, Tory leader David Cameron was facing calls from gay rights activists to sack shadow home secretary Chris Grayling after he said Christian-run bed and breakfasts should be allowed to turn away same-sex couples.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats said his comments - recorded at a meeting of the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank - showed the Tories had not really changed under Mr Cameron.
Mr Grayling insisted he was not against gay rights, but said he believed it was important to be sensitive to the genuinely-held principles of faith groups.
Speaking at today's poster launch at Conservative headquarters in central London, Mr Osborne said Mr Grayling had his full support.
"Chris Grayling, like myself, voted for the legislation that outlawed discrimination," he said.
"He put out a statement yesterday, that's the end of the matter."
After today's official launch, two Conservative supporters donned masks of Mr Brown and Mr Darling and climbed into boot costumes.
They rocked back and forth, making the boots appear to be walking above young plants in a patch of bare earth, as Nancy Sinatra's These Boots Are Made For Walkin' blasted out from a stereo.