How a nursery story can change the workforce, George Osborne will plump for PM over sirand the long wait for a Mother of the House

 

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Tax break with hidden benefits

The other day I found myself shopwalking (it's a bit like sleepwalking – you go around in a trance but you're wide awake and surrounded by mannequins and clothes rails) with my three-and-a-half year old in tow in a busy high-street store.

I was spending so much effort making sure she didn't run off, the actual shopping didn't get much attention. It was only when I got home I realised I'd absent-mindedly bought a colourful children's lunchbox for my daughter. This was an error, because when she starts school in September her lunch – and that of every other child aged four to seven – will be free. There are winners and losers in every government policy, and on this one the losers include those who make millions out of Peppa Pig, Hello Kitty or dinosaur-themed lunchboxes. By the time the pupils are eight, and their parents have to fork out for lunch, they'll want something less childish. Won't anyone think of the lunchbox manufacturers?

I mention this because the coalition's childcare policy, set out in detail by David Cameron and Nick Clegg last week, has winners and losers. Or rather, winners, losers and some who are winning but perhaps shouldn't be. As we report today, the cost of childcare has increased so much since 2010 that a typical family will still be worse off, even if they claim for the tax break. This typical family is spending an average of £1,850 more a year on a part-time nursery place than they did before the last election. But under the new childcare tax break, this same family would receive only £1,097 back. Then there are the stay-at-home mothers who get nothing.

The coalition has listened, too – after The Independent on Sunday highlighted the unfairness of single earners eligible for universal credit getting less than double-earner households, this anomaly has been fixed. Perhaps most oddly, the winners include those with combined earnings as high as £300,000. I can't imagine what it's like to be in this salary bracket, but it doesn't take too much of a stretch to think they don't need cash back from the state.

This is such a flagship policy the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister went to a nursery, together, to advertise it. Tieless, well-meaning and smiley, they could have been a couple of primary school teachers rather than members of the Cabinet. It's all right for them, I heard half the population of the UK say, with their well-paid jobs and even better-paid wives. These two couples probably don't qualify for the tax break because their earnings are above £300,000.

Yet, does this make the childcare tax break a bad thing? No, it does not. Give or take a few tweaks, it is the most important policy the Government has announced this Parliament – further reaching than the pension reforms in George Osborne's Budget. People think that this significant tax break only matters to families with young children. But it matters to the female workforce and, in turn, is essential to the economy. There are, it is estimated, one million women "missing" from the workforce because childcare is so expensive – it costs more than a mortgage in many cases – that returning to work after having a child is often not worth it, particularly for part-timers. Some stay-at-home parents are men, but this problem mainly applies to women. Imagine what our economy would be like with the hard graft of an extra million women pushing at the wheels of growth? It is an exciting prospect, and one that Clegg, Cameron and Osborne truly understand.

Osborne's next title

Osborne's position as leader-in-waiting is stronger this weekend, after a broadly successful Budget, than it was last week. Boris Johnson still prevaricates over whether he will even stand as an MP in 2015. The economy looks healthy, meaning that if the Conservatives lose the next election – leading to Cameron standing down – it won't be Osborne's fault.

But will the Tory party be ready for someone who is even posher than the current leader? Osborne didn't go to Eton (he went to St Paul's), but he is the heir to a baronetcy. His father, Sir Peter, is a youthful 71. Yet I understand that when the time comes, while Osborne Jnr would never renounce a title in the way that Tony Benn did, he would not want to be referred to as "Sir George" if he is in a prominent political role – a Conservative prime minister wanting to govern for the whole country, for example. The man who changed his name from Gideon to George isn't afraid of shrugging off the shackles of his birth. So it would be "Call me George".

Mother of the House? Not yet

The announcement by Sir Peter Tapsell, the Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle, that he is standing down at the next election has sparked suggestions that this could be the seat into which Boris is parachuted, but it also creates a vacancy for "Father of the House" – the name given to the MP who has served the longest, continuously, in the House of Commons. Sir Peter became an MP in 1959, and has sat continuously since 1966. Next is Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester Gorton since 1970).

Will there ever be a "Mother of the House"? The longest-serving female is Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham since 1982). Margaret Beckett was elected in 1974 but lost her seat in 1979, regaining it in 1983, disqualifying her. Given the slow pace of gender equality in Parliament, the first "Mother of the House" is unlikely to have been born.

Enjoying it all, Lib Dem style

All the talk about the next Conservative leadership contest raises the question: why are the Tories in a panic while the Lib Dems, who are facing a fight for their existence at the next election, so relaxed? Tory MPs seem to be running around like decapitated Rhode Island Reds, but the Lib Dems – who, given the polls, could have the number of their MPs halved and be in opposition to a majority Labour or Tory government – serenely glide around Westminster. The answer must be that they have less to lose: the Tories expect to be in government, while Clegg's MPs still can't believe their luck. "I'm having a ball," says one Lib Dem minister.

twitter.com/@janemerrick23

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