George Osborne is sparing with the appearances on camera, deploying them mostly when he wants to make a point – as recently with his visit to night workers. His trip to a nursery yesterday was thus intended to identify him with childcare help for working parents – a modern-minded cause which appeals to the Chancellor's inner political strategist (never long absent). But the visit also drew from him what seemed to be an unambiguous commitment to transferable tax allowances, which would balance the new childcare voucher scheme with help for non-working parents. "Later in this parliament we're going to be introducing tax breaks for married couples", he said. The coverage of his remark about some parents caring full-time for their children being a "lifestyle choice" has been unfair: he clearly meant simply that this is their decision.
The means-testing of child benefit for 40 per cent rate taxpayers and the availability of the vouchers to the same group under the Chancellor's plan is inconsistent. If he believes that austere times mean concentrating resources, it would be better to treat parents more evenly. And since the voucher will cover up to 20 per cent of childcare costs, and Osborne is likely eventually to announce the transfer of only a fraction of the tax allowance, his dice will still be loaded in favour of two-earner couples. None the less, the Chancellor's declaration on transferable allowances is very welcome. In today's Daily Telegraph, I trace the story of his suspicion of help for one-earner and married couples, which has always contrasted with David Cameron's instincts.
The past few months have seen a prolonged "charm offensive" from Downing Street and the Treasury aimed at Conservative backbenchers – including support for James Wharton's EU referendum and more local control of wind farms. The deportation of Abu Qatada also occured during this period. David Cameron has been putting his back into supporting backbench Tory MPs – even turning up to try to support a bid by Peter Bone to win the chairmanship of an all-party group. Osborne's move should thus be seen as part of the drive to boost backbench morale, by drawing the sting from an issue that has preoccupied the party's right-and-centre. The Chancellor had better get a move on, though. If transferable allowances aren't introduced either this year or next, their effect won't be felt before the election takes place.