Steve Richards: Who wants to hang around in matrimonial hell for the sake of a few extra pounds?

In 1993, when tax was last especially favourable to married couples, the divorce rate was higher
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Iain Duncan Smith makes more waves now than when he was leader of the Conservative Party. During his brief, traumatic spell in charge, Mr Duncan Smith spoke often about his intense concerns in relation to poverty. Hardly anyone noticed. If they did they tended to mock mercilessly rather than stand respectfully to attention. Now every time Mr Duncan Smith speaks on the subject he commands the front pages of the newspapers and is invited on to the Today programme. Senior ministers cannot get a look in compared with poverty's new philosopher king.

What is it about being a former leader? When William Hague was in charge of the Conservative Party he used to make good jokes and the world turned away. After he resigned various organisations paid a fortune to hear the same jokes delivered by Mr Hague as an after-dinner speaker. I am told preparations are well underway for Mr Blair's departure in Downing Street. He should take comfort that former leaders can command more attention than those that lead.

Over the past year Mr Blair has delivered some of the best speeches of his career as he reflected on policy areas ranging from Europe to the role of the state. They received virtually no attention. If he delivers them again when he leaves he will make every front page in the land. There is something about Britain's anti-politics culture that prefers politicians when they cease to be political.

No longer a conventional politician Mr Duncan Smith makes the issue of poverty one of the great themes of our times. This is a significant contribution from a former leader who could have bowed out after his humiliatingly enforced resignation.

So far it is also the limit of his contribution. His chosen theme is unexpected and counter-intuitive. His analysis and implied prescriptions are less dramatic and more predictable. Mr Duncan Smith is a small-state and old-fashioned Tory. He views poverty through the prism marked "family breakdown", noting that those suffering from it are often from broken families.

But to what degree is family breakdown the cause of their extreme disconnection with the rest of society and to what degree is it the consequence? Mr Duncan Smith does not raise the question. He ignores other questions too. How much can the Government intervene through the tax system to force couples to marry and stay married? Even if it could do so is that as desirable as Mr Duncan Smith implies?

In 1993 when the tax system was last especially favourable to married couples the divorce rate was higher than it is today. I am not surprised. People do not want to hang around together in a form of matrimonial hell for the sake of a few extra pounds. Even if a few pounds here and there compelled a reluctant couple to marry it would not necessarily result in magically stable families. There is nothing wrong with family life when it works. Sometimes it does not.

The Tories mocked Mr Blair's recent observation that a life of poverty starts in the womb, but that was a much-needed statement of the obvious too, less often voiced than Mr Duncan Smith's familiar observations about family life. The latest research commissioned by ministers suggests that if a range of measures is taken in the first two years of a child's life expectations can be transformed. To take one example based on successful experiments in the US, the government is piloting schemes in which a nurse visits newly born kids of teenage single parents on a daily basis for two years.

Again, this will not magically transform lives any more than a politician bemoaning family breakdown will. Schools, housing, anti-crime initiatives, moves to tackle drug addiction, welfare-to-work schemes, tackling debt and tax credits must also play a part. There are bigger themes too, relating to tax, immigration and the rest. The causes of poverty are multi-layered.

Earlier this year Mr Duncan Smith told me with a genuine conviction that he would advocate "whatever policies it takes" to address the issue, including spending more public money. Perhaps his final report will be more comprehensive, but with a wave of his newly acquired wand Mr Duncan Smith chooses for now to highlight without qualification one issue among many. He could have made more of his post-leadership powers.

There is an illuminating contrast with Tony Blair, who also chose to preach social moralism in the first long interview he gave as leader of the Labour party. In a lengthy exchange Mr Blair agreed finally with Brian Walden on the Sunday after his coronation in July 1994 that "single parents who have chosen to have children without forming a stable relationship ... are wrong". But he stressed that he was not referring to those that had become single parents through family breakdown or condemning those that lived together rather than getting married.

The headlines exploded positively about Mr Blair's support for families, but he had not been so sweeping in his analysis as Mr Duncan Smith. His political purpose was also clearer. Mr Blair was seeking to reassure voters that Labour was not the political equivalent of a wild night out on the town.

If I were Mr Cameron I would be a little worried about the symbolism conveyed by Mr Duncan Smith's message. He needs to make the Conservatives seem more up for the odd night of fun. For the past year Mr Cameron has sought headlines conveying a sense of sunshine, love and the need for a more caring, modern Tory party. Yet on Sunday the newspapers identified the Tory party with a return to Victorian values and "back to basics".

Yesterday on one BBC programme Mr Duncan Smith was depicted as an old fashioned vicar calling for a return to traditional values. I also heard a BBC phone-in in which the focus moved from poverty to the virtues of marriage, with several people who live together and single parents contributing almost fearfully, wondering whether they would be singled out once more for vilification by the Conservative Party.

In opposition, a party is judged partly on the headlines it generates. If this was a co-ordinated spinning operation it seemed to contradict the spirit of previous headline-grabbing initiatives. If it was not a co-ordinated exercise the new Conservative leadership is not as disciplined as it should be.

That is not a problem any more for a former leader who has, at least, made poverty a pivotal political issue. One senior government adviser tells me he has spent much of the past few weeks pleading with media outlets to interview ministers about their plans for poverty. There was a time when no minister would be available to talk on the subject even when the media was pleading. On that basis alone Mr Duncan Smith can take a modest bow as he turns to Tory orthodoxy for answers.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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