Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Thursday, 19 March 2009

Tough choices ahead, Tories warn

David Cameron: 'I don't want to be elected on some false prospectus'

David Cameron has warned an incoming Tory government will have to make "tough choices" on public spending.

And he said cutting public debt - not taxes - would be his top priority, in a keynote speech on the economy.

He criticised "quango fat cats" and said he would examine the system of tax credits - as some were reaching people earning more than 50,000 a year.

Labour says the Tories would cut spending, which would be "economic madness" in the middle of a recession.

In his speech Mr Cameron said a "credible strategy" to bring the public finances under control was essential for recovery.

'False prospectus'

The Tory leader, who ditched the Conservatives' commitment to match Labour's spending plans in the light of the economic downturn, stressed that fiscal responsibility had to have a "social conscience."

As official data suggested the UK's budget deficit had widened to 8.99bn in February, Mr Cameron said an incoming Conservative government would have to deal with "the worst set of public figures in our peacetime history".

I am a Conservative who believes in lower taxes. But in today's fiscal circumstances, the priority must go to debt reduction
David Cameron

He said without addressing public debt, confidence would be undermined and it could lead to a sharp increase in the cost of borrowing - meaning higher interest payments on mortgages and business loans.

"I am a Conservative who believes in lower taxes. But in today's fiscal circumstances, the priority must go to debt reduction," he said.

"Put simply, our overriding objective will need to change from sharing the proceeds of growth, to paying down our debt."

He told the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson: "I don't want to be elected on a false prospectus in promising things I cannot deliver."

Financial discipline

"I want to say clearly to the British people, there are going to be tough decisions, we will take those decisions as compassionate Conservatives, not hatchet faced accountants."

He said he would not "balance the budget on the backs of the poor" and said plans to reduce public debt would be "fair for all".

Some things would have to be cut - such as the planned ID card scheme and a database of children's details.

David Cameron's plans for cuts in apprenticeships, housing and transport in the middle of a recession are economic madness
Yvette Cooper

The only spending plans he was committed to beyond 2010 were real-term increases in spending on the NHS and a cross-party agreement to boost overseas aid to 0.7% of GDP by 2013.

He was asked if schools or defence spending would be ring fenced but replied that while the Conservatives had announced what they would do this year they were not making "detailed announcements" for future years.

'Fat cats'

Mr Cameron said they had already identified money to provide new schools and said they would stick by their pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to 1m.

He said social reform plans would not be abandoned but said he would "examine" tax credits as he believed the original purpose of the system had been "confused to the point where tax credits can now reach people earning over 50,000 a year".

You cannot compare the salary of a part-time chairman of a narrowly focused organisation covering TV with that of the CEO of Ofcom
Ofcom spokesman

He also said he would "call time on the culture of quango fat cats".

He compared the 417, 581 salary paid to the chief executive of the regulator Ofcom, with the 77,590 paid to the chairman of the Independent Television Commission - one of the regulators Ofcom replaced - in 2001.

Mr Cameron said the Ofcom figure was "a staggering example" of the growth in public sector salaries.

But Ofcom said it was not a fair comparison. A spokesman said: "You cannot compare the salary of a part-time chairman of a narrowly focused organisation covering TV with that of the CEO of Ofcom, a regulator covering the whole communications sector worth five times the value.

"In any case, the ITC's chief executive was earning 295,000 in 2002."

The government criticised the Conservatives for sticking to their inheritance tax plans.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Yvette Cooper said: "How can David Cameron talk about fairness when he is still committed to a tax cut for millionaires' estates, won't back our 1.2bn help for the unemployed to get back into work, and wants to cut Sure Start?

"David Cameron's plans for cuts in apprenticeships, housing and transport in the middle of a recession are economic madness that would cost us all more in the long run."



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