Labour faces the fight of its life, the party admitted as the general election campaign gets under way in earnest.
Party sources acknowledged Labour’s dire poll rating but insisted Jeremy Corbyn’s message would get through to voters after 18 months of turbulent leadership once it was delivered on the campaign trail.
Theresa May set the tone at the final Prime Minister’s Questions for a presidential-style election battle, pitting her leadership against Mr Corbyn’s.
“Every vote for him is a vote for a chaotic Brexit; every vote for me is a vote to strengthen our hand in negotiating the best deal for Britain,” she claimed.
But televised debates will play little role over the next six weeks after Labour responded to Mrs May’s refusal to take part by saying Mr Corbyn would boycott any event without the Prime Minister.
The Conservatives drove home their central message of the “stronger leadership” needed to deliver a successful exit from the EU.
Last night Boris Johnson told the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London that while Brexit means “some plaster may fall off the ceiling”, only the Prime Minister could “pull it off”.
And a cabinet source claimed the party was ready was ready to seize on the chance of a breakthrough in Scotland by sending its big guns for high-profile appearances in target seats, saying: “We’re waiting for our marching orders from Ruth Davidson.”
The latest set of polls showed the gap between Labour and the Conservatives continuing to rise, with the Tories enjoying a lead of up to 23 points.
A Labour source said: “We have the fight of our lives on our hands, but it’s clear as Labour is able to speak with its own voice in its election campaign, as has not been entirely the case in the previous 18 months, the public will respond very clearly to our very popular policies. We will be setting out to transform the way Britain is run for the many and not the few.”
Mrs May was unable to rule out a squeeze on pensions when she came under sustained pressure at PMQs from Labour and the SNP.
The Prime Minister refused to pledge that a ‘triple lock’ on pensions would continue if the Conservatives win on 8 June, leading to accusations of a “betrayal” of older people.
She was attacked for not doing more to help women born in the 1950s who must work longer as the retirement age rises. Nicola Sturgeon claimed it was a “scandal” that the Tories had “coldly brushed aside” the concerns of campaigners demanding additional compensation.
SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson challenged Mrs May to guarantee the triple lock that sees pensions increase in line with wages, inflation or by 2.5 per cent - whichever is highest. Mrs May said pensioner incomes will “continue to increase” but would not give an explicit commitment to the triple lock for the second time this week.
Mr Robertson said: “Pensioners right across this land are right to conclude that this Tory Prime Minister plans to ditch the triple lock on the state pension.
“Too many women already face pensions inequality, and the Tories now won’t even guarantee the pensions triple lock, and the only reason that they will not guarantee it is because they want to cut pensions.”
The Prime Minister was also challenged over the ‘rape clause’, which requires women to prove they have conceived a third child through rape to be exempt from a two-child cap on tax credits.
SNP MP Chris Stephens called on the Prime Minister to condemn the “unworkable and immoral policy”. Mrs May said it was an “incredibly sensitive issue” that had been subject to careful consultation.