Today, there is one issue that looms larger than any other in British politics: the amount of government borrowing.
According to some estimates the UK Government will borrow 14 per cent of our national income next year.
And even after the Government's plan to halve the deficit we will still be borrowing more than Denis Healy in 1976.
Right now we are borrowing more in a month than governments used to worry about borrowing in a whole year.
And the next British Government faces the largest deficit since the 1940s - when we had just fought a world war.
It's clear that dealing with this debt crisis must be the priority for our economy and will dictate our politics for the years to come.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
The question now is: how do you deal with the debt crisis?
First, you have to be frank about the scale of the challenge and candid about what it means.
That's exactly what we've been.
That's why we opposed the VAT cut and warned about the scale of borrowing.
And unlike any previous politicians in opposition, including the Conservatives in the 1970s, we have taken the bold step of telling the British people very clearly: with a Conservative Government public spending will be cut.
Not reduced in growth, not frozen - but cut.
That candour is a world away from the current Labour Government
This summer, we had the shameful spectacle of the Prime Minister standing up in the House of Commons claiming that spending on programmes would continue to rise - even when his own Budget figures showed it would have to come down.
And even now, as they slowly shift position and acknowledge that spending will need to come down, hardly anyone in the Cabinet can actually bring themselves to say the word 'cut'.
As well as honesty in dealing with this debt crisis, we need urgency.
So second, you've got to get on with it.
You need to start the process of bringing spending down now.
In practice that means that the substantial increase in spending next year, which is currently planned by Labour, is unaffordable.
Because if consumers, markets and businesses get the message that government wants to carry on spending and isn't serious about dealing with the deficit, they will start to conclude that the UK is no longer a safe place to invest in, spend in or build a business in.
Our recovery depends on these people - on the decisions they make, based on the faith they have in the handling of our economy.
They want to see both the will and the plan to get the deficit down.
Only when they feel confident, will we get the economic firepower we need to propel us out of recession and into a lasting recovery.
If we lose their confidence, then we will pay a heavy price in terms of higher long-term interest rates and less investment - and that would undermine any recovery.
That's the risk: another Labour Government could tip us back into recession.
We have been making this argument for months : bringing down the deficit is not an alternative to long-term economic success, it's a vital part of it.
Labour, on the other hand, seem to believe that securing lasting recovery and tackling the deficit are alternatives - that you can either do one or the other.
That's why they justify putting off action to sort out the appalling state of our public finances in to the future.
But even on their own terms, their argument is now falling apart.
On the one hand, they are saying we will be out of recession and growth will return by the turn of the year.
Yet on the other hand, they are planning to increase spending from £671 billion this year - 2009\2010 - to £701 billion for the financial year starting in April 2010.
That's a £30 billion increase.
This complete contradiction comes down to one thing - political calculation, not economic necessity.
Does anyone imagine that without an election next year Gordon Brown would pursue such a reckless path?
The Prime Minister's resolve to do the right thing reminds me of one of those fridge magnets: the diet starts tomorrow.
I have said how we're going to take people through this debt crisis - with honesty and straight talking.
I have said when spending cuts need to start.
But there's a third thing we must do to deal with this debt crisis - and that is to take the country with us.
In the years ahead, we're going to have to make some really tough decisions about what to spend money on, and what not to spend it on.
And there will need to be a wholesale change of culture when it comes to the spending of public money across the whole public sector.
A new culture of delivering more for less; of turning problems on their head and finding new, more cost-effective, solutions; and of making every taxpayer pound go as far as possible.
To do that, we need the country to stick together.
We need everyone to show real thrift and responsibility.
But that will only happen if people feel there is genuine leadership from the top and that the burden is being shared fairly - especially by those who can bear it best.
Yes, fair means the rich pulling their weight.
But it must also mean the powerful too.
I want to make clear: under a Conservative government, far from politicians being exempt from the age of austerity, they must show leadership.
And leadership is about doing, not just telling.
So today, that's what I want to talk about - how we can cut the cost of politics.
I'm going to name several areas where budgets will be cut, halved - even wiped out altogether.
But let me make it absolutely clear.
I know that cutting the cost of politics will in no way solve our debt crisis.
Public spending on politics is a pinprick compared to the total amounts of money we are dealing with.
I understand that to really get to grips with the debt crisis we will have to take a look at those areas of massive government expenditure and see where savings can be made.
Public sector pay, gold-plated pensions, big procurement projects - whole swathes of state activity can no longer be sacrosanct.
The burden will be borne across the board.
But we cannot ask people to bear that burden unless we are prepared to play our part and take a lead by doing so.
CUTTING THE COST OF POLITICS
If we're going to take our country through these difficult times, those who lead must lead by powerful example.
That means getting our own house in order and cutting the cost of politics.
In recent months I've explained how a Conservative Government would give more power to people through decentralisation, accountability and transparency.
This power shift is going to have a huge impact on public spending.
Decentralisation will massively cut the costs of state bureaucracy.
Local government is officially the most efficient part of the public sector.
Councils achieve well in excess of the sector's spending review targets, beating central government savings by a country mile.
That shouldn't surprise anyone - a pound spent closer is a pound spent wiser.
It's spent by those who really know the needs of a local community, who know the streets, the neighbourhoods, where the problems are and the best ways to solve them.
That's why Conservative controlled Hammersmith and Fulham Council has cut council tax by three percent this year...
...yet it is one of the top performing local councils in the country.
If they can do it, others can too.
Indeed, this Thursday, Conservative councils are getting together to discuss how they can learn from each others' experiences and help deliver more for less.
It's the same with increasing accountability.
This will strengthen our democracy and save public money.
Labour's sprawling state apparatus with its myriad of unaccountable bodies doesn't just take democratic power away from people, it also sucks up vast sums of money.
Funds that should be going to the frontline are instead creamed off by Whitehall, quangos, improvement agencies and regional bodies.
We're not going to take an arbitrary axe to the many arms of government.
But we're not going to accept the status quo of the state today.
The existence of each and every quango must be justified by passing one of three tests we have set.
Does it undertake a precise technical operation?
Is it necessary for impartial decisions to be made about the distribution of taxpayers' money?
Does it fulfil a need for facts to be transparently determined, independent of political interference?
If the answer is yes, it will stay.
But if the quango in question does not pass any of these tests it will go, its function assumed by departments of state and we can save a huge amount of money.
But perhaps the biggest change will come through transparency.
With a Conservative Government, every item of government spending over £25,000 will be published.
No ifs, no buts.
And if we win the next election, we're going to publish online all public sector salaries over £150,000 too.
I don't think people understand yet what a big difference this is going to make to government and how it spends.
The old way of cutting public spending normally starts with ministers ordering a spending review.
A big name is appointed to lead it up, a "no-stone-unturned approach" is promised and a shopping list of cuts is produced.
The axe fails to fall and a few years later the whole ritual starts all over again.
It is never enough.
The savings made are a blip on the balance sheet.
One of the insights of our times is that transparency can be used as an extraordinary tool for spending restraint.
Look at MPs' expenses.
The simple act of publishing information online has brought about real change.
It has transformed the culture of MPs' spending at a stroke - and it is already starting to save money.
Just imagine what will happen when we publish all government spending online.
Recently, the NHS bought a yacht and moored it in a Hull marina.
If this extravagance had been published for all to see, the people who made this decision would either have had to justify it or scrap it.
The point is that when set budgets are spent in opaque systems, it's so easy for a casual spendaholic culture to set in.
So we're going to pull the cloak off government spending and pull the plug on that culture.
I want the public to be crawling over the government's books, with their scrutiny acting as a straitjacket on spending.
It's true that revolutionary is a word over-used in politics...
...but there is no other way to describe the change that transparency will bring.
So through decentralisation, accountability and transparency we will not only take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman on the street...
...we will cut the cost of politics too.
But there is still more that we can and must do, especially right here in Westminster.
Under Labour, millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been wasted on funding what can only be described as a cushy lifestyle for politicians.
Last year, it cost £500 million to run Parliament.
That's twice as much as it did in 1997.
And has it really got twice as good?
With the Conservatives, the gravy train will well and truly hit the buffers.
We have already led the way.
We were the first to say that MPs should not set their own pay - now that's happened.
We were the first to say that new MPs should not get a final salary pension scheme - now that's going to happen.
And we were the first party to publish all MPs' expenses online and for everyone to see so we could stop abuse - now everyone's doing it.
But I believe we can go much further.
CUT PERKS AND SUBSIDIES
To begin with, we need to look at all those perks and subsidies offered to politicians and which the public find so offensive.
We've already said we'll get rid of the £10,000 yearly 'Communications Allowance' that every MP gets.
It may sound new fangled, but let me tell you : it's nothing less than old-fashioned, state-sanctioned propaganda.
It's there for every MP to pay for sending newspapers and leaflets to their constituents to tell them how great they are, what a brilliant job they're doing and why they're the best thing since sliced bread.
It's anti-democratic, it's a waste of money, so it's gone.
And the best thing is, we'll save the taxpayer £5 million.
But today I can announce other cuts the Conservatives will make to MPs' perks and subsidies.
Walk into a bar in Parliament and you buy a pint of Foster's for just £2.10.
That's a little over half as much as in a normal London pub.
And in the restaurants on the Parliamentary estate, you can treat yourself to a 'Lean salad of lemon and lime marinated roasted tofu with baby spinach and rocket, home-roasted plum tomatoes and grilled ficelle crouton' for just £1.70.
That's all thanks to you - taxpayers' cash subsidising a politician's food and drink.
We all have to eat, we all sometimes want a drink, there's nothing about this job that forces us to eat or drink any more than if we did something else.
So with the Conservatives, the cost of food and drink in Parliament will be increased to match the prices normal people pay in cafes, restaurants and bars around the country.
Slashing the subsidy in this way will save up to £5.5 million.
And what about cars?
If there is something that really annoys people it's seeing politicians swanning around in chauffeur-driven cars like they're the Royal Family.
It's actually not as simple as that.
There are times when having a car to hand...
...which gets a minister to a certain place on time...
...is absolutely vital to our democratic process - for example, to make a vote in the House of Commons, or to meet a foreign dignitary or open a school.
But there is no need for 171 of these cars to be on hand for every government minister, whip - and indeed, myself.
In these economic times, when everyone is making their own sacrifice, this number cannot be justified.
So the Conservatives will cut the budget for official government cars by a third.
If that means fewer cars - and ministers using them more efficiently - then so be it.
And if we're going to cut the cost of the cars, let's also start at source and cut the cost of ministers.
There are currently 169 government ministerial posts and 3 opposition party posts that receive additional taxpayer funded salaries, on top of the standard MP salary.
These ministerial salaries range from £26,624 to £132,923.
It's only right, at a time when the country has to share in financial pain, that they make their sacrifice.
So we will cut all Ministerial salaries - that's the money they get on top of their MPs' salary - by an immediate five percent.
This means a pay cut of £6,500 for the Prime Minister and a £4 ,000 pay cut for Cabinet Ministers.
On top of that, we will freeze those salaries for the lifetime of the next Parliament.
That means a further pay cut when inflation is taken into account - and a saving of over a quarter of a million pounds a year for the taxpayer.
I know the arguments against this.
We expect Ministers to do an incredibly demanding job...
...spending hours studying policy papers and briefing materials.
And it is a stressful one too...
...as they are constantly in the public eye and are responsible for decisions that affect the lives of millions.
So it's only right that they get properly remunerated.
Yes, that's all correct.
But what's even more correct is that the biggest problem in Britain today is the budget deficit and politicians need to show leadership in bringing it down.
When we've cut perks and subsidies, we must then turn our attention to cutting the costs of political bureaucracy.
Our political system was once a democratic and legislative beacon to the world.
We enfranchised our people more quickly, and engaged the voting public more determinedly, than many other countries.
And our legislation was the most radical and reform-minded yet most scrutinised and detailed in the world.
But today, our political system is in danger of becoming listless and cumbersome.
Tiers of bureaucracy are crushing it down.
If we can strip them away, we can help reinvigorate our democracy and save money.
So as we have already announced, we will get rid of unelected, unaccountable and unwanted Regional Assemblies - and save £18 million.
And we have also said we will scrap the Standards Board for England.
This is the body that judges the performance of Councils and Councillors.
That's what the voter is supposed to do.
By abolishing the Standards Board, we will save £9.5 million.
But today, I can announce how we can go further.
Thirty years ago British elections were overseen by a handful of people in the Home Office.
In those days most people voted and no-one cheated.
Today, the same responsibility lies with the Electoral Commission, which employs 156 people full-time.
Since 2001 its annual budget has more than trebled from £7.6 million to £24 million...
...but we've never had lower turnout and we've never had more corruption.
It doesn't have to be like this.
India's Election Commission oversees state elections of areas the size of European countries every year, and a General Election of over one billion people every five years.
One tenth that of Britain's Electoral Commission.
And its number of full time staff?
Twice as many people to oversee sixteen times as many voters.
The Indian Commission is more efficient because it sticks to the job it is meant to do.
We must demand the same of our Electoral Commission.
As I have said, all quangos in Britain must justify their existence by passing one of three tests.
With a Conservative Government, the Electoral Commission will continue to exist because it provides a vital independent and impartial oversight of our democratic process.
But it is clear that over the past few years the Electoral Commission has overreached this role with advertising campaigns and wasteful marketing initiatives.
So as part of our quango review, we will identify all the unnecessary functions it has assumed and see what savings we can make for the taxpayer.
There's scope for improvements in other areas too.
Today, government bodies spend millions of pounds hiring public affairs advisers to lobby government for more money or other policy changes.
Let me make that clear - that's government spending money to get government to spend more money.
We will follow the example of the United States and impose new financial rules to stop public sector bodies from hiring consultants to lobby politicians.
At a stroke, this will save £10 million a year.
One of the most important changes must be saved for the House of Commons itself.
The fact is that when you shift power to the bottom...
...to individuals, neighbourhoods, local councils and cities...
...you reduce the need for it at the top.
We've got far too many MPs in Westminster.
More people sit in the House of Commons than in any other comparable elected chamber in the world.
So we will require the Boundary Commission to set out detailed proposals to reduce the number of MPs by ten percent for the next General Election.
That will be a reduction from 650 to 585, and will save £15.5 million.
But as well as becoming smaller, Parliament must also become more efficient.
Those MPs that remain cannot see this as an excuse to carry on regardless.
Too much money is spent on pay for staff and going on foreign trips.
At a time when every family and business is seeing where they can cut back, where they can be more efficient, Parliament must do so too.
So the Conservatives will demand from the Parliamentary authorities a ten percent cut in costs, banking the taxpayer £50 million
Cutting the perks, cutting the bureaucracy. In total the proposals I have announced today will save taxpayers as much as £120 million a year.
That figure may seem trifling when we have a budget deficit of £175 billion.
But this is about more than the money.
It's about the message.
And the message is this.
This country is in a debt crisis.
We must all now come together, play our part, carry our burden and pay our fair share.
And that starts at the very top -with politicians cutting the cost of politics.
I sincerely believe our country will be able to cope with and come through the tough times ahead...
....but only if we tell people the truth about what's happening.
Gordon Brown just cannot be straight with people.
He's come back from his break but it like he's never been away.
He's still sticking to the same old myth that we can spend, spend and spend.
The only party that is being straight with the British people today is the Conservatives.
We understand the scale of the problem.
We have said spending must be cut.
And we're determined to lead the country by powerful example and cut the cost of politics.
That's because if we stick together, and all play our part, our best days will lie ahead of us.