- guardian.co.uk, Sunday 26 April 2009 17.25 BST
A Conservative government would usher in a new "age of austerity" David Cameron said today as he pledged his administration would publish online every item of spending over £25,000 and all public sector salaries over £150,000.
The Tory leader insisted greater transparency would help to get Britain's finances back on track as he used his keynote speech to the Conservative party forum in Cheltenham to pave the way for sweeping cuts in public spending.
"Over the next few years, we will have to take some incredibly tough decisions on taxation, spending and borrowing – things that really affect people's lives," Cameron warned.
However, the Tory chief risked fuelling accusations that his own figures failed to add up when he defended his decision not to release detailed Conservative spending plans.
"Detailed plans or shadow budgets would become quickly out of date," he said. "But in the weeks and months ahead, the shadow cabinet will redouble its efforts to identify wasteful and unnecessary public spending.
"Make no mistake, I am very clear about how much more work there is still to be done in order to identify significant future savings. We will carry out this work. We will do so responsibly and, in time, we will set out the hard choices that lie ahead."
Cameron, who often roams around the stage when addressing the party faithful, today delivered his sombre 35-minute address from behind a lectern.
"There is only one way out of this mess and this is through massive change," he said. "I'm frustrated it's not happening. I'm impatient to get on with it."
The age of austerity demanded responsible politics, he said as he unveiled plans to allow the public to make their own checks on wasteful spending.
"Today I can announce our 'People's Right to Know' plan – a democratic check on wasteful spending.
"Every item of government spending over £25,000, nationally and locally, will have to be published online," he said.
The plan is based on a the Missouri Accountability Portal, a US website set up in the state of Missouri that provides citizens with a single point of reference to review how their money is being spent.
Cameron said of the US site: "It will show you why transparency is such a powerful tool in controlling public spending and it can have an especially powerful effect when it comes to salaries."
The Tory chief said public sector salaries had soared under Labour. "Where this has gone to nurses, doctors, teachers, police and other frontline stars, that is money well spent," he said. "But it is certainly not true of the wage bill for the swarm of unaccountable quangos that has infested our country under Labour.
"So we'll publish online all public sector salaries over £150,000. Let's see which officials have been getting rich at the taxpayer's expense and whether they're worth the money."
The Conservative leader insisted the country needed a "complete change of direction".
"I'm not just talking about changing one group of ministers for another, or one set of policies, plans, proposals for another. I'm talking about a whole new, never-been-done-before approach to the way this country is run."
In a savage attack on Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, Cameron accused the prime minister and his chancellor of "distraction burglary" in their announcement of a new 50p rate of income tax in last week's budget.
"When I see Brown and Darling, I'm reminded of those people who come to your door; one pretends to read your gas meter, while the other robs your house," he said.
"50p income tax when you have a budget deficit of £175bn? That's not responsibility – it's distraction burglary."
Promising a Conservative government would deliver more for less, the Tory leader said he was well aware the electorate wanted his party to stand up for the poorest in Britain.
"[We will] show that fiscal responsibility can go hand in hand with a social conscience," he said.
The speech was well received in the hall but is likely to fuel calls from Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the party to set out what services or programmes would be cut under a Conservative government.
Earlier, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, refused to be drawn on the issue. Instead, he told conference of his dislike for the government's new 50p top rate of tax but admitted a Conservative government would not necessary scrap the move.
His priority would be to try to reduce taxes for those earning about £20,000, particularly by reversing Labour's increase in national insurance, which would hit low earners, Osborne said.
Theresa May, the shadow Commons leader, led a question and answer session on how the party can help people find jobs, but Ken Clarke, the shadow business secretary, cancelled his appearance because his wife was unwell.