'Tory' Johann Lamont tells Labour conference 'not sure the cap fits'

The Scottish Labour leader has rejected claims that she is a Tory for questioning universal benefits such as free NHS prescriptions.

Johann Lamont defended her position on Tuesday in a speech to the Labour party conference in Manchester, one week after signalling a policy shift north of the border.

She faced sustained criticism from her Holyrood opponents for casting doubt on popular but expensive Scottish Government policies which also include free university tuition and a council tax freeze.

The SNP branded her the poster girl for the Conservatives.

Ms Lamont, making the first speech to the UK party conference as an overall leader for Scottish Labour, said: "Last week when I pointed out that Scotland's families are paying for Salmond's unsustainable tax break for the rich I was accused of being a Tory. I'm not sure if the cap fits with someone who campaigned against Thatcher's cuts to Scotland in the eighties.

"Not sure the cap fits with someone who campaigned for a Scottish Parliament to protect Scotland from future Tory governments. And I am not sure the cap fits with someone who sees in everyday life the consequences of a Tory Government cutting too far and too fast while we have a SNP Government content to amplify the cuts rather than protect people from them."

In an attempt to turn the argument back on the SNP, she added: "It was Alex Salmond who relied on the Tories to put through four budgets. It was Alex Salmond who cheered David Cameron into number 10 because it suited his political argument, in full knowledge of the consequences.

"This SNP Government claims to be a progressive beacon but took George Osborne's cuts, doubled them and handed them to Scottish councils, impacting on our elderly care, our schools and our chances of growing local economies.

"This SNP Government is making the poor pay for the election bribes that benefit the better off but won't tell us this side of the referendum where he goes to find another £3.3bn of cuts."

Last week, in a speech in Edinburgh, Ms Lamont called for an end to a "something-for-nothing" culture, arguing that taxes will have to rise or services will be cut.

The party said no decisions on such policies have been taken but all areas will be looked at, including centrally imposed targets.

On Monday she hinted that taxes could go up once Holyrood gets new financial responsibilities through the Scotland Act in 2016, assuming a No vote is returned in the 2014 independence referendum and Labour is returned to power.

The Act, which became law earlier this year, provides for the income tax rate in Scotland to be reduced by 10%, with the Scottish Parliament then responsible to bring it back up or make variations.

In an interview published on ScotsPolitics.com, she said: "Both the Scottish Government and I am sure every political party will be looking at what the different options are that these now offer and the responsibilities and accountabilities that go with them.

"Now I certainly think everybody has to come together on these things, decide what your balance of taxation against services is. But the line that the SNP perpetuates is that it is possible to have Scandinavian-style services and not fund it."

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has said she wants to use the new powers to cut the tax by one penny in the pound.

Mark McDonald, an SNP MSP, said: "The problem for Johann Lamont is that the Tory cap fits her very well. Her 'cuts commission' speech has been praised to the skies by the Tories in Scotland and even by Tories in Wales.

"In threatening to cut Scotland's public services such as free personal care, reintroduce prescription charges on the sick and impose tuition fees, Ms Lamont has become the Tories' poster girl in Scotland.

"No wonder Labour members have formed the Labour for Independence group."

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