Portillo plans to take the strain off NHS by asking middle class to pay

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A move by Michael Portillo to neutralise Labour claims that the Tories would slash public spending backfired yesterday when he suggested his party would ask middle class families to pay for private health care.

A move by Michael Portillo to neutralise Labour claims that the Tories would slash public spending backfired yesterday when he suggested his party would ask middle class families to pay for private health care.

The Shadow Chancellor hinted that a Tory Government would cut taxes by £8bn as he fought back against repeated allegations by ministers that the Tories would cut Labour's spending plans by £16bn a year.

Mr Portillo said the Opposition's plan would involve "expecting people who can to make a little extra contribution." He told BBC Radio Four: "That would be what people would feel they wanted to do, because they were in a position to take some of the strain off the health service."

His decision to unveil a glimpse of the Tories' spending plans provoked immediate Labour clams that the Opposition would privatise the NHS. Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, said: "It is now clearer than ever that the Tories' health policy is to force people to go private and pay for their own operations."

But last night a Tory spokesman accused Labour of trying to frighten the sick and vulnerable. He insisted: "We would look to see an expansion of the private sector on top of our extra spending on the health service. We would hope to encourage this by removing the penalties imposed on the private sector by Labour. Contrary to Alan Milburn's assertions, there has never been and will never be any suggestion of compulsion."

In the wake of Mr Portillo's move, the two parties clashed bitterly over tax and spending, which is certain to be a key dividing line between them at the next general election.

Labour stuck to its allegation that the Tory strategy would still mean spending cuts of £16bn - a claim which some Shadow Cabinet colleagues believe has damaged the party because Mr Portillo has been too slow to kill it.

Ministers said Mr Portillo's suggestion that an incoming Tory Government would stick to Labour's spending plans for one year would not reduce his cuts target but merely mean he would need bigger cuts in the following two years.

Andrew Smith, the Chief Treasury Secretary, accused Mr Portillo of proposing "spending cuts he cannot name and tax cuts he cannot fund". He hinted that Labour would put higher spending before across-the-board cuts in income tax, saying ministers would never borrow to fund tax cuts like the Tories.

But Oliver Letwin, Mr Portillo's deputy, replied: "Our plans for prudent public spending will leave room for tax cuts for hard-working families and pensioners." He said Labour's £16bn cuts claim was now impossible to justify.

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