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Theresa May to lay bare ambition to capture Labour heartlands

Theresa May will lay bare the Conservatives’ ambitions to capture some of the most historic Labour seats in England in a speech on Thursday night, telling voters in Leeds to put aside their traditional allegiances and vote “in the national interest”.

In a sign of the Conservatives’ bullishness about their electoral chances in Labour’s northern heartlands, May will tell voters in Harehills that it will be the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, on the ballot, not their traditional party. The inner-city suburb is in the former seat of Denis Healey, the ex-Labour chancellor.

“I know this city is one of the places that people call a ‘traditional Labour area’,” May will say. “But here – and in every constituency across the country – it may say Labour on the ballot, but it’s Jeremy Corbyn that gets the vote.”

Four Labour MPs have seats in the city, many with sizeable majorities above 7,000. In Leeds East, the constituency that May chose as her venue for the speech, the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, a key Corbyn ally, is defending a 12,533 majority from 2015.

Setting out her stall in Harehills, a working-class suburb with high populations of people with Pakistani and east European origins, is the strongest signal yet that May is prepared to be ambitious in her bid to sweep into traditional Labour cities. “This election is not about who you may have voted for in the past. It is about voting in the national interest,” the prime minister will say.

“Every vote cast for me through my local Conservative candidates in cities like Leeds, and in towns and cities across the UK, will strengthen my hand when I negotiate with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of Europe in the months ahead.”

May will say that next month’s general election will be “the most important election this country has faced in my lifetime – every single vote counts. And everyone in our country has a positive reason to lend me their vote.”

She will also tell the rally of Conservative campaigners that she recognises there will be difficulties ahead in the Brexit negotiations, citing the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on how the UK had “illusions” about the process.

“We can see how tough those negotiations are going to be at times,” she said. “We need the strongest possible hand, the strongest possible mandate and the strongest possible leadership as we go into those talks.”

Labour MPs in marginal seats across the country have told the Guardian they have stressed the near-inevitability of the Tories’ victory in June on the doorstep, promising voters that a vote for them will not mean a vote for Corbyn to become the prime minister.

Leeds MPs including former shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves and former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn have both been openly critical of Corbyn in the past. Fabian Hamilton, whose Leeds North East seat encompasses some of the wealthier parts of the city including Roundhay and Alwoodley, is though to be most at risk of defeat by the Tories.

On Thursday, Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw wrote an open letter to voters in his local Devon paper, saying “a vote for me will not affect who governs nationally” in an attempt to put clear water between his record locally and Corbyn’s leadership.

Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s national elections chair, said: “Theresa May is going to extraordinary lengths to blinker the British public and make this election about anything other than her record in government. The people of Leeds won’t be fooled: the only party of working people is the Labour party.

“Under the Tories working people have picked up the bill while those at the top have received tens of billions of pounds of tax breaks. Wages have stagnated, public services have suffered huge cuts and our NHS is in crisis.

“It is clearer than ever that the Tories are for the few, not the many. Rather than uniting the country and tackling the challenges we face, their policies are divisive and are taking us backwards.”