Tony Abbott on the losing side again after baby jibe at Julia Gillard backfires

Australia's opposition leader says he apologises 'if she wants to take offence' after family row

Sydney

Ever since the Australian opposition leader, Tony Abbott, recruited his wife, Margie, earlier this month to combat government claims that he has "problems with women", things have gone from bad to worse – and each time Mr Abbott hauls himself out of a hole, he starts digging again.

The facts are these: the opposition leader is married, with three grown-up daughters, while the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, lives with her partner and has no children. Holding that against her, it might seem obvious, is unlikely to endear Mr Abbott to female voters – indeed, one of his Liberal [centre-right] colleagues was roundly denounced a few years ago for calling Ms Gillard "deliberately barren".

So his minders must have been cringing yesterday when they heard his response to a government plan to reduce public spending by cutting a A$5,000 (£3,214) "baby bonus" paid to parents for a second or subsequent child by $2,000.

The Treasurer, Wayne Swan, explained that "after the first child you've already bought the cot, the pram and the other items that you can use again".

In an interview on morning TV, Mr Abbott declared that "if the government was a bit more experienced in this area, they wouldn't come out with glib lines like that". Amid a storm of criticism, he later denied that he had been having a dig at Ms Gillard, but apologised "if she wants to take offence". The Prime Minister's response was to suggest that "Mr Abbott can explain what he meant by that line".

A fortnight ago, Ms Gillard unleashed a devastating attack on Mr Abbott in parliament, accusing him of being a serial misogynist. Her 15-minute tirade, which he was forced to sit through, earned her plaudits around the world and has become an unlikely hit on YouTube.

Things looked so much rosier a week earlier, when Mrs Abbott made a joint TV appearance with Mr Abbott to declare him everything a woman could want in a husband "and more". She revealed that he cries in soppy films, and said their daughters were "in love with their father".

Far from her husband of 24 years being a sexist pig incapable of dealing with women in positions of power, he is a "soft touch", according to Mrs Abbott. She said: "Tony Abbott gets women and… the women in Tony Abbott's life certainly get him." The TV interview coincided with a series of newspaper features about the couple, all apparently aimed at highlighting Mr Abbott's feminine side.

If the charm offensive had any impact, the events of the past fortnight appear to have cancelled it out. According to an opinion poll this week, Ms Gillard's popularity rating rose to its highest for nearly two years in the wake of her parliamentary excoriation of Mr Abbott.

The opposition leader claimed yesterday that his latest remark was "entirely innocent", and that he had been referring to his experience with his two elder daughters, Louise, 23, and Frances, 21. He told Channel Seven that often "one child is still in the cot when the other one comes along, one child is still in the pram when the second one comes along, so you actually need to get an extra cot or a double-sized pram".

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