David Cameron appeared to catch Ed Miliband completely off guard today by ruling out any rise in VAT in the next parliament should the Conservatives win re-election.
Labour has been hammering Cameron and George Osborne for weeks over their apparent failure to categorically state that a future Tory government would not hike VAT. Just yesterday the chancellor told MPs said he had "no plans" to do so - but did not rule it out.
In a rowdy prime minister's questions, the last before the May 7 general election, Miliband pressed Cameron again. "Will he now rule out a rise in VAT?" Cameron replied: "The answer's yes".
And in an attempt to turn the tables on Miliband, the prime minister pressed him to rule out a rise in national insurance under a Labour government. A question the Labour leader dodged. "He'll have plenty of time to ask questions after May 7," Miliband said.
However shortly after PMQs, Ed Balls told regional journalists in Westminster that Labour would rule out an rise in national insurance. "We have no need to raise national insurance because our more careful and balanced plan to cut the deficit each year doesn't require a rise in national insurance," he said. "It will be clear in the manifesto Labour will not in the next Parliament be raising national insurance."
Miliband told MPs that despite Cameron's decision to rule out a VAT rise, he should not be believed given the record of past Conservative governments.
The noisy exchanges were watched from the gallery by the prime minister's wife, Samantha Cameron, and two of his children - all of whom appeared to be enjoying the experience. Cameron's daughter Nancy shouted "yeah!" once her father sat down.
The Labour Party said, despite Cameron's comments today, it will continue to use its new campaign poster, unveiled yesterday, that predicts the Conservative Party will raise VAT if it gets back into government.
Don't let the Tories hit you with this: pic.twitter.com/wlLdgYnvq8— Labour Press Team (@labourpress) March 24, 2015
A Labour source said the prime ministers words during prime minister's questions simply showed he was "spooked" by a lack of a post-Budget poll bounce and was "making up policy on the hoof".
Cameron's decision to rule out a rise in VAT appeared to be a closely guarded secret, even at the top of government. Treasury minister Priti Patel told the BBC's Daily Politics shortly after PMQs had ended: "This is the first I have heard of this today. I am pleased."
Tory MPs left PMQs in good spirits following a difficult few days that saw Cameron rule out a third term in office and one of its candidates resign following allegations of plotting with the EDL.