When the Tory faithful last met in Birmingham, two years
ago, an audacious announcement by George Osborne on breakfast TV dominated the
headlines. In a bid to show that the middle classes would share the pain of a
fiscal squeeze, the Chancellor declared that any family with a 40% taxpayer
would cease to receive child benefit. The sting in the tail of this particular
cut was that it would spare many comfortably off dual-earner households whilst
penalising families with just one breadwinner. Coming from a party that once
promised to introduce transferable tax allowances and remove the “marriage
penalty”, this was a startling turn of events.

Amid the resulting furore, the Treasury agreed to lift
slightly the threshold for the child benefit withdrawal, but the one-earner
penalty remains. As the policy comes into effect this tax year, all taxpayers
earning £50,000 or more must be quizzed on their family circumstances, to find
out if they are living with someone in receipt of child benefit, which will
then be clawed back through a new tax charge. This is fraught with problems,
particularly in cases where families break up or new relationships are formed.
All couples living together with children will be obliged to disclose their
financial affairs to each other, and the tax system will take on complexities
and hidden penalties formerly confined to the welfare system. One thing is
clear: married couples will be first in line to suffer the clawback, because
their relationship is on the record. Just as in the welfare system, looser
forms of relationship will be much more difficult to define and capture.

How did a supposedly pro-family Conservative party find
itself advocating a new form of marriage penalty? We have come a long way since
David Cameron put marriage at the top of his personal policy agenda. And it's
too easy to blame the constraints of coalition government for the failure to
assert a distinctive family policy as part of the Conservative worldview.
Conservatives in government have simply failed to identify and promote this
building block of the strong society.

Of course the coalition's record on social policy is not all
bad. It has taken some important steps to improve children's lives: insisting
on higher standards in schools, speeding up adoption, reducing bureaucracy for
social workers to give them more time on the front line, demanding better value
for money from Sure Start spending. Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms should
create better incentives for families to work their way out of poverty – although
the couple penalty in welfare will largely persist in the new system. But one
of the most important predictors of children's life chances is growing up in a
stable family. As the Centre for Social Justice pointed out in its recent
“report card”, the government has failed to introduce any policies to help keep
families together, or to support that most important factor in determining
family stability, the decision to marry.

When Nick Clegg makes one of his speeches characterising
marriage as an outmoded institution, conjuring up images of 1950s housewives at
the kitchen sink, he makes clear his disdain for the marriage-based family.
Despite his own happy marriage, he prefers to ignore the weight of evidence
showing how marriage improves children's lives, and how this institution
remains the most popular lifestyle aspiration for young people. But the curious
thing is that David Cameron never seems to feel the need to rebut the Deputy
Prime Minister's assertions with a more positive narrative of his own. Back in
the early days of Mr Cameron's leadership, as he sought to define himself in
the public eye, I had a conversation about family policy with one of his
closest allies, now a senior minister. He told me there was no chance that
David Cameron would waver in his support for marriage. It was, he insisted, a
defining issue, something he would stand by even if it made him unpopular in
some quarters. Voters would see that he felt passionately and personally about

What happened to that passion? It's still abundantly clear
from the Prime Minister's demeanour, his evident attachment to his wife and
children and his prioritisation of home life, that his marriage and family are
the most important things in his life, providing him with resilience and
enabling him to cope with personal tragedy. Yet in government he has seemed
unable to articulate his earlier beliefs, least of all to apply them to a
programme of policy. The only occasions on which he has spoken with passion on
the subject of marriage have been when he has pledged to redefine the
institution in order to include gay marriage. But in terms of repairing the
social fabric and giving children a better start in life, the ability of gay
couples to marry rather than enter civil partnerships is irrelevant. It is
therefore baffling, as well as disappointing, to many Conservatives that the
Prime Minister has chosen to expend so much energy, and to court controversy,
on this issue. Rather than building support, it has created unnecessary
divisions: setting up antagonism between family campaigners and gay people,
alienating many Tory voters and party workers, and setting churches and faith
groups at odds with the Conservative party.

In the meantime, the party lacks a distinctive and coherent
social agenda. Apparently lacking ideas of its own, the coalition has chosen
Tony Blair's respect tsar Louise Casey to supervise a £450m scheme to transform
the lives of Britain's 120,000 “Troubled families.” Her report on the problems
besetting these households is depressingly familiar: shifting relationships,
family breakdown, dysfunctional parenting, teenage motherhood, drug and alcohol
abuse. But a long line of reports on the causes of the broken society,
including Oliver Letwin's Conveyor Belt to Crime back in 2002 and the CSJ's
Breakdown Britain in 2006, had set out precisely the same problems. Unlike the
authors of those reports, however, Ms Casey has made no policy recommendations
for stemming the tide of family breakdown or breaking the cycle of casual
relationships. Her proposals for intensive intervention with a small number of
families may briefly staunch the wounds of the most damaged families but will
not stop the conveyor belt, or cut off the routes into delinquency. For as long
as welfare payments continue to pave the way to young single motherhood, to
relieve families of the need for a father's support, and attach no conditions
to the use of those payments, children will continue to be raised in chaotic

One theme which quite clearly unites the coalition partners
is the desire to promote social mobility. It is an issue to which the Deputy
Prime Minister frequently returns. Yet the single biggest factor in determining
educational success is parental input; research shows that it is the time,
commitment and involvement of parents that most influences a child's level of
attainment. School reform is vitally important, but its effects will be limited
unless attention is paid to strengthening families.

The benefits of a family-based social policy do not stop
with children. Daunted by the cost of looking after an increasingly elderly
population, the government is understandably reluctant to make expensive new
commitments on social and residential care. But a pro-family tax policy, such
as the transferable allowance proposed by Allister Heath's 2020 Tax Commission,
could be used to help families 
care for their elderly relations. Indeed, almost any measure taken to
strengthen family relationships will carry a pay-off through to old age.

David Cameron has long understood that his party must offer
much more than deficit reduction if it is to win the country over to
Conservative values. But the messages he has sent out from Downing Street on
social policy issues, from saving the NHS to building the Big Society, have been
sporadic and disconnected. Recovering his confidence to talk about strong
families, as the heart of a strong society, would enable him not only to
connect up a range of government initiatives, it would also enable him to
connect with an audience who still don't know where a Conservative government
might lead them.