David Cameron insisted today that the Tories were "the party of the NHS" as he claimed that health service spending was safe only with them.
As the Conservative Party published the first chapter of its draft general election manifesto, the Tory leader said Labour would not protect the NHS budget.
His raid on traditional Labour territory came alongside the launch of a national Conservative poster campaign denying Labour allegations of Tory cuts.
The posters featured a large portrait of Mr Cameron, and the words: "We can't go on like this. I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS."
At a Westminster event this morning, the Tory leader stepped up his attack on Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
"We cannot go on, we cannot afford, another five years of Gordon Brown," he said.
In an apparent bid to stymie Labour's portrayal of the Tories as the party of the rich few, Mr Cameron announced plans to target NHS resources on the poorest areas.
The Tory leader said he would be publishing his draft manifesto, chapter by chapter, over the weeks ahead. The first was on health, because it was his top priority, he added.
"Today, the Conservatives are the party of the NHS," he said.
"But talk is cheap. You've got to back that with action, and we have.
"We are the only party committed to protecting NHS spending.
"It's there in black and white behind me. I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS.
"And don't for one minute buy the Labour claim that they'll do the same. They won't - and their own figures show they won't.
"Unlike us, they have not committed to protecting areas of the health budget such as public health and capital investment."
The Tories said their poster would be displayed at almost 1,000 locations across the UK.
The move comes as campaigning for the election - widely expected in May - stepped up a gear.
Mr Cameron said the first section of the Tories' manifesto confirmed the party's commitment to protecting the NHS budget in real terms.
"It was our number one priority four years ago when I became leader of the Conservative Party - and has remained so ever since," he said.
"It's only three letters long but in it lies the hopes of millions in our country - the NHS."
Mr Cameron accused Labour of failing to tackle the gap in health between rich and poor, describing it as "one of the most unjust, unfair and frankly shocking things about life in Britain today".
"Health inequalities in 21st century Britain are as wide as they were in Victorian times," he said.
He promised the Tories would introduce a new health premium that would divert cash to the poorest areas and "banish health inequalities to history".
"With our plans, the poorer the area, the worse the health outcomes tend to be, so the more money they can get," he said, adding that local people would decide how it was spent.
Mr Cameron also pledged to make maternity services "more personal and more local, with more choice".
New maternity networks to be introduced by the Tories would bring together all of the services mothers needed under one roof.
"Local hospitals, GPs, charities, community groups and maternity consultants will all be linked up so that they can share information, expertise and services," he said.
"There will be clinical benefits - as the more professionals communicate across the network, the more consistent the medical practice will become and the higher the standards will be.
"And there will be social benefits - as these networks will function as a meeting place for mothers as well as professionals."
The Liberal Democrats said the Tories needed to spell out what cuts they planned in frontline services to pay for extra spending on the NHS.
Health spokesman Norman Lamb said: "All today's announcement confirms is that the Tories can't be trusted with the NHS and have every intention of playing fantasy politics all the way up to the election.
"The NHS is facing enormous shortfalls in funding over the next few years yet the Tories continue to promise extra health spending without any details of where the money will come from."
He added: "The time has come for David Cameron to be honest with the British public.
"If the Tories want to pledge extra spending on health in some areas then they must admit that without extra funds it will lead to cuts in frontline services elsewhere.
"And if they plan to remove all central targets how do they intend to prevent a return to the waiting lists of old?"Reuse content