Theresa May declares 'austerity is over' as she lifts cap on how much councils can borrow for housebuilding

Theresa May danced on to the stage in Birmingham, where she said the Tories would back businesses (Source: Getty)

Theresa May declared the end of austerity is in sight as she unveiled plans to let councils borrow more cash to tackle the housing crisis.

In her speech to the Conservative conference on Wednesday, the Prime Minister hinted at a financial boost for the UK's public services after Brexit, in a bid to show the "hard work" of getting the economy back on track has paid off.

In an address peppered with attacks on Labour's plans for the economy, May called for the Tories to make the free market work again "for ordinary people."

Read more: Theresa May hits back at Boris Johnson in Brexit row at Tory conference

She defended her under-fire plan for Brexit, insisting her negotiating strategy would deliver friction-free trade with the EU.

May's speech was almost undermined when, less than an hour before she was due to take the stage at the end of her party's annual conference, Tory MP James Duddridge publicly called for her to quit as leader.

However, a confident May used her address to shrug off criticism from Boris Johnson and even danced on to the stage to the tune of "Dancing Queen" by Abba - in a self-deprecating reference to her widely mocked dance moves during a trip to Africa.

Conservative Party Leader Speaks To Conference On Day Four
Theresa May danced on to the stage for her conference speech (Source: Getty)

Speaking in Birmingham, May promised "there are better days ahead", adding: "When we’ve secured a good Brexit deal for Britain, at the Spending Review next year we will set out our approach for the future.

"Debt as a share of the economy will continue to go down, support for public services will go up because, a decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off."

On Brexit, May urged her warring party to come together or risk Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.

"We have a Labour Party that, if they were in Government, would accept any deal the EU chose to offer, regardless of how bad it is for the UK, but who also say they’ll oppose any deal I choose to bring back, regardless of how good it is for the UK," she said, adding: "They are not acting in the national interest, but their own political interest."

May avoided using the word "Chequers" as she defended her own proposal, saying that her plan to keep the UK signed up to Brussels rules on goods would "protect hundreds of thousands of jobs in the just-in-time supply chains our manufacturing firms rely on."

She used her speech to launch an attack on Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading critic of her plan who claimed it could take half a century for the benefits of a hard Brexit to materialise.

May said: "The people we serve are not interested in debates about the theory of Brexit - their livelihoods depend on making a success of it in practice.

"A Brexit that might make Britain stronger fifty years from now is no good to you if it makes your life harder today."

Conservative Party Leader Speaks To Conference On Day Four
Theresa May is congratulated by her husband, Philip, after delivering her speech (Source: Getty)

Her speech focused heavily on the NHS and the threat from Labour, but the most eye-catching policy announcement was related to housing.

She said: "There is a government cap on how much they can borrow against their housing revenue account assets to fund new developments.

"Solving the housing crisis is the biggest domestic policy challenge of our generation. It doesn’t make sense to stop councils from playing their part in solving it.

"So today I can announce that we are scrapping that cap." The announcement drew applause in the hall, but is already being criticised by some who question the wisdom of allowing local authorities to increase their debts.

Read more: Boris Johnson savages Theresa May's Brexit plan

May used much of her speech to attack Labour, claiming the opposition no longer has "basic qualities that everyone could respect".

After dubbing it "The Jeremy Corbyn Party", May claimed Labour's economic plans, which include renationalising the railways and water industry, would cost the taxpayer £1 trillion.

She said: "Labour would have to pay for it by raising taxes higher and higher.

"When you raise taxes too high, businesses cannot afford to invest, they cannot afford to take on new employees.

"Eventually, they cannot afford to operate here at all. They move abroad, create jobs in other countries, pay taxes somewhere else, and leave us poorer."

Taking on Labour's plan to force large companies to hand 10 per cent of shares to employees, May said such a move would "hurt the very people they claim to help".

She added: "It would mean the government effectively confiscating a tenth of every company with more than 250 employees.

"Workers wouldn’t become shareholders – and much of the income generated would end up with the government.

"They dress it up as employee ownership, but it’s a giant stealth tax on enterprise.

"It would slash the share prices of British businesses, hitting anyone with a private pension.

"And it would make the UK an unattractive place to invest, driving away business, destroying jobs."

The Conservative's reputation for backing business has taken a battering in recent months, compounded by Boris Johnson's reported "f*** business" remark during a conversation with the Belgium ambassador in June.

Read more: Boris Johnson is 'irrelevant and offensive' says business guru Digby Jones

In a swipe at Johnson, May said: "To all businesses – large and small – you may have heard that there is a four-letter word to describe what we Conservatives want to do to you.

"It has a single syllable. It is of Anglo-Saxon derivation. It ends in the letter 'K'.

"Back business. Back them to create jobs and build prosperity. Back them to drive innovation and improve lives.

"Back them with the lowest corporation tax in the G20. Britain, under my Conservative government, is open for business."

Read more: May and Boris were both in the shadow of Corbyn at the Tory conference

CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn welcomed May's warm words on business in the speech, but was unhappy with her immigration policy plans.

She said: "The government’s proposed new immigration system is a wrong turn. The UK economy needs workers at all skill levels. A one-size-fits-all global system ignores the need for migration to be on the table for trade deals and binds small firms in unmanageable red tape."

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