David Cameron accused Labour of making an "utter mess" of the economy after presiding over a "decade of debt" that has led to the worst recession since the Second World War.
In his response to a Budget that will set the tone for the next election, the Tory leader said any past claims Labour had made about its prudent handling of Britain's finances had been finally extinguished by a doubling of the national debt, spiralling unemployment and a severe tightening of public spending.
"As of today, any claim they have ever made to economic competence is dead, over, finished," Mr Cameron said. "Britain simply cannot afford another five years of Labour. This Prime Minister has certainly got himself in the history books – he has written a whole chapter in red ink – Labour's decade of debt," he said, adding that the £348bn Gordon Brown planned to borrow over the next two years was more than all other dovernments combined since the Bank of England was founded more than 300 years ago.
He said future generations would "never forgive" the current Government for lumbering them with the debt. "They talk about child poverty. With debt like that our children are going to be in poverty for decades," said Mr Cameron.
Senior Tory figures were on the offensive after the Budget, describing it as "dishonest" for attempting to grab the headlines by hitting the rich with higher taxes, while raising much more through tax hikes that will hit ordinary families. While ignoring the introduction of a higher 50 per cent tax band for those earning £150,000 due to come in ahead of the next election, Mr Cameron turned his fire on increased duty on alcohol and fuel that would affect everyone. "These people aren't rich, these people have to work hard," he said.
"These aren't taxes for the few, these are taxes for the many introduced by this Labour Prime Minister." He also alluded to the "smeargate" scandal that has engulfed the Government, challenging the Prime Minister to acknowledge that, "as well as bringing the country to the brink of financial bankruptcy you brought your party to moral bankruptcy as well".
The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, panned the Budget as a "mish-mash of recycled announcements", which included a "trolleyfull of rambling policies" without a clear plan of how to put them into practice. "Labour is out of ideas, out of steam," he said. "Today they have condemned us to years of unemployment and decades of debt. The country deserves something different."
Vince Cable, the party's Treasury spokesman, said the Budget amounted to the Government "throwing in the sponge" in its attempts to fix the economy. He also slammed the "tokenistic" higher tax rate for high earners. "It is a bit of a resignation in a way," he said. "They are throwing in the sponge, admitting there is not much they can do about these problems and passing it on."
Doubts were raised about Mr Darling's forecasts for economic growth, which foresee the economy shrinking by 3.5 per cent this year, but growing by 3.5 per cent in just two years' time.
Mr Cameron ridiculed the figures as predicting a "trampoline recovery". Doubts also came from senior figures in his own party. John McFall, the Labour chairman of the Treasury Select Committee and a close Brown ally, said there were "legitimate concerns" among the public about the debt.
He also added that his committee had been concerned that the predictions made by Mr Darling during his autumn Pre-Budget Report, claiming that the economy would shrink by just one per cent this year, were "optimistic".
Backbenchers were also outraged by revelations of cuts to public spending. John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, said the Budget included "a programme of public expenditure cuts and privatisations never seen before in the history of this country". He also slammed the Chancellor for "unsustainable growth predictions".
The fellow backbencher and Barnsley MP Jeff Ennis turned on the Government over hikes in alcohol duty that would hit pubs already closing in record numbers. "Pubs and clubs do provide a lot of social cohesion, particularly in working class communities," he said.
Last night, the Tories were also pointing to the public spending cuts. "We're certainly not going to be taking any lessons on "Tory cuts" any more, that's for sure," said a member of the Shadow Cabinet.Reuse content