KEIR Starmer has denied he will take the country towards a “Thatcherite future” – as he insisted he is “not in the business of cutting funding”.

The Labour leader said austerity was the “path [the Tories] take” as he defended Labour’s high-spending previous spells in Government.

It comes after SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn accused Starmer of wanting to take the country into a “Thatcherite future”.

Speaking at the think tank Resolution Foundation’s conference in London on Monday, the Labour leader also defended watering down a major green spending commitment.

Starmer argued the NHS was in need of “reform” if it was to survive into the future but suggested this would not involve cutting its budget.

He said: “I’m certainly not in the business of cutting the funding which is why is the focus is so much on growth.

“What I would say though is that we must never forget that our public services need reform.”

The NHS must make greater use of “data and AI” and should focus on preventing people from getting sick rather than only treating people when they become ill, he argued.

The National: Starmer

Starmer (above) said: “If it’s to last another 75 years – and I want it to, I believe in it and I’m determined that it will – then it’s got to change, it’s got to become preventative, it’s got to be closer to people and their communities. We’ve got to make much more use of data and AI.

“On public services, yes there’s the question of how much money we put in, but there is equally the question of whether you’ve got the wherewithal to carry out the reform that is desperately needed.”

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He suggested this would not result in spending cuts, however, noting that Labour governments have previously increased public spending while in office.

Starmer added: “If you look at the record of Labour in government, what you see is a record of investing in our public services. The austerity is something of this Government, that is the road down which they walk.”

However, in his speech he warned Labour would not “quickly turn on the spending taps” if they form the next Government, adding: “But at the same time, we will be ruthless when it comes to spending every pound wisely.”

He went on: “I have said to every member of my shadow cabinet, when they are drawing up their plans for our manifesto.

“Think carefully about how precious every pound is for the people we must serve.

“Hold them in your minds’ eye and approach the public finances – spending decisions – like it’s their money. Because at the end of the day: it is.”

His speech to mark the launch of a new report into the UK’s economic malaise by the progressive think tank the Resolution Foundation came after he wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph which said Margaret Thatcher had wanted to “drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism”.

Many took the remark to be in praise of the former prime minister – something he rejected on Monday.

Starmer said: “It doesn’t mean I agree with what she did, but you don’t have to agree with someone to recognise they had a mission and a plan, in her particular case, about entrepreneurship.”

The National: Stephen Flynn

But Flynn (above) – who has regularly used his time at PMQs to criticise Labour as much as the Tories – said the speech showed Starmer’s values were “far, far removed from Scotland’s values”.

The SNP’s Westminster leader added: “Austerity, Brexit and Margaret Thatcher – these are the values that motivate Westminster politicians like Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak, and Scotland wants none of it.”

He was also grilled about Labour’s watered-down green spending plans, which were initially worth £28 billion spending plans and are now a target for around 2026, should Labour come to power next year.

The plans were absent from his speech – despite its focus on economic growth – but Starmer said growth was not only to do with investment but also planning and regulation.

He said: “The £28bn, we will ramp up to that in the second half of the [next] parliament and it will be used to trigger that other investment from the private sector.”