Theresa May is to call on the Conservative party to face up to the “political fact” that people distrust its motivations around vital public services such as the NHS and education.
In a speech that has echoes her infamous “nasty party” warning 16 years ago, the prime minister will say hospitals and schools are facing difficulties that the government must show it is trying to tackle.
“While always defending our record in office, we also need to accept that our public services today do face real challenges and we must be clear about the action we are taking to help them,” she will tell the Tories’ spring conference in central London.
Her comments are likely to raise the hopes of MPs who have been calling on ministers to boost NHS spending through new tax rises, with changes expected in the autumn budget.
May will say that Tory councils have kept taxes low while delivering high quality services to those most in need and will stress the importance of Brexit.
But, using language similar to the 2002 landmark speech when May, then party chair, warned “you know what some people call us – the nasty party”, the prime minister will focus on public services, arguing they are just as important to national life.
“Some people question our motives. They wonder whether we care enough about our NHS and schools. Whether we truly respect the people who work in them. And understand that people rely on them,” May will say, insisting that “everyone in this party cares deeply about our public services” with many relying on them.
She will talk about her own story. “Mine starts with state schools which helped me to get into a great university and set me on course for a rewarding career … When I was diagnosed with diabetes, the NHS was there for me. Skilled and compassionate, helping me every step of the way to manage my condition and live a normal life. I rely on the NHS everyday and I am eternally grateful to them.”
May will insist that the government has a strong record of delivery, “so we might think that the public’s doubts about us are unfair, but they are a political fact which we must face up to”.
The prime minister’s choice of words could be controversial within elements of the Conservative party as parallels are drawn with her earlier warnings when she attacked the “disgraceful behaviour” of colleagues who cheated on their partners and others who “demonised minorities”.
The attempt at rebranding came as others promoted a series of liberal reforms including same-sex marriage, an A-list of candidates that would be 50% female and black and minority ethnic and even suggesting the party be renamed “reform Conservatives”.
The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said the prime minister was desperately trying to sound like she cared about public services, “but you can’t trust a word she says”.
“The truth is that, under this government, the NHS is in crisis, our schools are in crisis and local councils are in crisis as a result of Tory cuts,” she said.
There have been growing calls from Tory MPs to consider higher taxes to fund struggling hospitals, with many concerned that anger about austerity contributed to the party losing its majority in 2017.
The former minister, Nick Boles, has suggested an overhaul of national insurance to fund health spending, an idea also pushed by other MPs.
In recent days, reports have suggested that Tory politicians have been sounded out about the possibility of a 1p hike in national insurance to find £4.9bn extra in health spending.
However, the chief secretary to the Treasury, Elizabeth Truss, stressed that the Conservatives remained a “low tax party”. She did not rule out the possibility of a national insurance rise over the parliament but denied MPs had been consulted about any specific changes to national insurance contributions to fund the NHS.
Truss said Philip Hammond would make a fresh set of spending decisions in his autumn budget, which would be based on the state of public finances at the time.
“We’ve had some positive news recently, productivity has ticked up, we’ve seen manufacturing results that are the best for a considerable number of years, but we need to be sure about what the future looks like before we take those types of decisions,” she told the Yorkshire Post.
But she added: “The Conservatives are a low tax party; we believe in lowering taxes on individuals and businesses. That’s what generates economic growth and that’s very, very important.”
Senior government sources made clear that nothing would happen before the autumn budget, with one saying: “We have no plans to raise taxes.”