Senior Tory warns against raising spectre of 'back to basics' on marriage

David Willetts puts himself at odds with his leader over tax breaks for married couples, as PM launches Labour's pitch for 'Britain's mainstream middle'
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The Conservatives must be wary of the "ghost of back to basics" when discussing the party's policy on marriage, a member of David Cameron's Shadow Cabinet says today.

David Willetts, the shadow families minister, appears to put himself at odds with the Tory leader's passionate defence of marriage by warning that people must not be told "how to live their lives". In remarks that are normally out of bounds for any senior Conservative, Mr Willetts raises the spectre of John Major's ill-fated call for a return to family values in the last Tory government in reference to Mr Cameron's flagship policy on tax breaks for married couples.

In a discussion with women from the parenting website Mumsnet to be broadcast on BBC1's Politics Show today, Mr Willetts defends the Tory policy of recognising marriage in the tax system, but says it should be about finding a practical solution to help ease the tax burden for families. This jars with Mr Cameron's declaration earlier this month that the marriage policy was "about the message more than the money".

Asked if he was worried that the policy had echoes of back to basics, Mr Willetts, who was a minister in the Major government, says: "You are absolutely right to warn about the ghost of back to basics, and the last thing people want is politicians setting themselves up as somehow morally superior or telling people how to run their lives. I think if you look at the way in which David Cameron, Maria Miller [shadow families minister] and myself have talked about this and addressed this, it's not some kind of pompous attempt to tell people how to live their lives. We are very much looking at the evidence."

He says evidence shows commitment between two adults is a "good thing", but adds: "Now, we all know the real world, all the pressures, and how not every relationship stays together. We completely understand that."

The intervention follows Gordon Brown's pitch for Britain's "mainstream middle" at a Fabian Society conference yesterday in which he claimed that the Tories were planning a "raid on the quality of life of our middle classes".

The Prime Minister, referring to "my friend Tony Blair", also sent out a message to dissenting Blairites after the attempted coup that he will lead a "New Labour coalition" into the general election.

But in a ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday, Labour is stuck 13 points behind the Conservatives, who have a substantial 42 per cent share, up one point on a month ago. Labour has climbed five points to 29 per cent, while the Lib Dems are down two points at 19 per cent. If repeated at the election it would give Mr Cameron a majority of 70. Most damaging for Labour is the finding that 59 per cent of voters disagree that the party has "the right ideas about how to get Britain out of recession", with 33 per cent agreeing.

The long election campaign continues this week with Labour and the Tories launching green papers on their respective family policies. The Tory paper, drawn up by Mr Willetts, will promise flexible parental leave and increase the number of health visitors – paid for by cutting tax credits for those on incomes over £50,000.

But Mr Willetts's comments threaten to overshadow the launch. It is the second time in a fortnight that the Conservatives have appeared split on their marriage policy. Earlier this month, Mr Cameron was forced to insist he stood by recognising marriage in the tax system after saying in an interview that he could not promise a specific tax break.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, said of Mr Willetts's remarks: "The Tories are now in complete disarray over their tax-and-spend plans – no more so than on marriage tax plans. David Cameron needs to spell out exactly what his policy is and how much it would cost. His strategy of nods and winks has clearly even left the Shadow Cabinet confused and doubtful about the policy."

ComRes telephoned 1,005 adults between 13 and 14 January. Full tables at www.comres.co.uk

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