Willetts and Letwin expose rift over plan to aim tax cuts at rich

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One of Michael Howard's Shadow Cabinet members last night appealed to him to focus tax cuts on "those ... finding it hard to make ends meet".

One of Michael Howard's Shadow Cabinet members last night appealed to him to focus tax cuts on "those ... finding it hard to make ends meet".

In a clear message to Mr Howard to avoid trying to win back the Tory core vote with a shift to the right, David Willetts challenged the Conservative leader to "go with the grain of human nature" and "help families that are under stress" by cutting their taxes rather than the taxes of the wealthiest.

Oliver Letwin will today promise to cut five taxes that he will list as unfair: council tax, inheritance tax, income tax and national insurance, stamp duty and tax on pensions. The shadow Chancellor will avoid spelling out details, pending a review of waste on public spending, but senior party officials confirmed that tax cuts would be at the centre of the Tory election campaign.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Willetts, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, whose Havant constituency includes one of the most deprived council estates in England, said he wanted to see the Tories "do things that help low-income families".

He added: "A Conservative debate over the next few months about which taxes we are able to reduce over time is the right way to go. I very much hope and believe that those tax reductions will lift the burden on the people I represent here. It's very important that we do that," he said. "It would be good to ease the burden of tax on those families finding it hard to make ends meet."

Mr Willetts said the poorest 20 per cent of the population, including many pensioners, were paying the highest proportion of tax under Labour. "Pensioners pay almost as much council tax as they pay income tax. If there are ways of alleviating the burden of council tax on poorer people, I think that would be a great thing to do."

Mr Willetts' shot across the bows on the first day of the Tory conference in Bournemouth follows fears that the Tories may retreat behind their core vote after their disastrous showing in the Hartlepool by-election, where they came fourth behind the UK Independence Party.

He joined several Tory front- bench spokesmen, including Andrew Lansley, calling on Mr Howard to show the Conservatives' softer side and avoid a lurch to the right to counter the threat from UKIP. Mr Willetts said the Hartlepool result showed the Tories "had not yet convinced people", adding: "We have to do more to show we have a practical set of policies that will make Britain a better place. We still need to do more just to show that we are comfortable with British society as it is and tackle the problems in Britain today."

In a further blow to Mr Howard, a poll for The Times by Populus gave Labour a 7-point lead over the Tories: Labour 35 per cent; Tories 28 per cent; and the Liberal Democrats 25 per cent. The poll suggests that the Conservatives are now even less popular than a year ago, when Iain Duncan Smith was leader. Mr Howard said he would set out a timetable for action under a Tory government to overcome scepticism of all politicians by the electorate.

Mr Willetts urged Mr Howard to return to his first aspiration to lead a party "broad in appeal and generous in outlook" representing all of Britain. "That is still the lodestone that has to guide us," Mr Willetts said. "We have to be remorselessly focused, starting with this conference, on making mainstream British life better."

This week, Mr Willetts will announce plans to privatise job centres. "We are looking radically at ways in which we can replace Job Centre Plus and the New Deal," he said.

Liam Fox, the Conservative joint chairman, will deny in his conference speech today that stopping Britain being a soft touch for asylum-seekers amounted to "a lurch to the right but an overdue response to the real anxieties expressed by the British people".

In Washington, Gordon Brown interrupted his G7 meeting to attack the Tories for offering "unbelievable promises" on taxes. He said: "We must persuade the country to reject the increasingly right-wing Conservative Party, which would divide the country, and expose the threat of their policies of economic irresponsibility, privatisation and cuts will pose to our stability, prosperity and public services."