If Cameron's marriage tax break is his answer, he's asking the wrong question

At a time when millions of people are facing a cost of living crisis we should be helping all families and not just some.

The Tory Party conference offers the chance for the Prime Minister to tell the country how he plans to solve the cost of living crisis. Yet, on the first day, we find out that his flagship policy doesn’t support the vast majority of families in this country struggling to pay the bills. If David Cameron’s so-called marriage tax break is his answer, then the Prime Minister is asking the wrong question.

For millions of people across the country, this announcement will seem perverse at a time of rising prices and falling wages. Two thirds of married couples won’t benefit at all. If both work on more than £10,000 a year, they will not be able to transfer their tax allowance and they won’t get any extra money. David Cameron's flagship policy is not for anyone who is separated, widowed or divorced.

A single mum, bringing up her children, working every available hour to pay the energy bills and provide a hot meal each night for her children will not benefit. The hard-pressed couple on low pay, juggling part-time work and childcare, will not see anything from David Cameron’s announcement. A one-earner family who live on £40,000 a year will gain, but a two-earner couple on £20,000 each won’t. If a man leaves his wife, leaving his children behind and remarrying, he would benefit from this policy, whilst the mother of his children would not.

It’s a policy which is about division and stigma - not the One Nation approach we need. Many parents will think David Cameron is telling them they are second class, not worthy of his support. But they are bringing up children too. We can’t simply forget about or leave behind the millions of parents who may not be married, but love their children and work tirelessly to provide for them.

Even for the few that benefit, they may very well wonder why they receive only £3.85 per week in recognition of the commitment they made to one another, whilst David Cameron gives £1,986 per week to the 13,000 people earning over £1 million pounds with his top rate of tax cut. It’s another policy which reveals David Cameron’s priorities - millionaires and not millions of families.

And this policy is another blow to David Cameron’s already feeble attempts to understand women. Mums have consistently lost out under this government. Child benefit and tax credits, payments that traditionally go to the mother, have all been heavily cut back. For many mums, this has been a real blow, making it harder for them to support their children and taking away independent income. This policy will not solve that problem, as it will usually be paid into their husband’s account. The Tories are taking a lot from the purse and putting a little bit back into the wallet.

Most families are already struggling with the cost of living crisis and the clobbering they have received from this Tory-led government. Energy bills are up and prices have risen faster than wages in 38 out of 39 months of David Cameron being in Downing Street. Families with children have been hardest hit by government policies already - losing £7bn in things like child benefit and tax credits.

At a time when millions of people are facing a cost of living crisis we should be helping all families and not just some. That's what Labour set out this week with plans to freeze energy bills and expand free childcare for working parents.

I am married and the day I walked down the aisle was one of the most important and happiest of my life. But when David Cameron says "Love is love. Commitment is commitment", he doesn’t mean this for everyone. In Cameron’s Britain, some people’s love and commitment - to their partner and to their children - simply don't count.

Rachel Reeves is Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

"David Cameron's flagship policy is not for anyone who is separated, widowed or divorced." Photograph: Getty Images.
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories