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Last Updated: Monday, 11 December 2006, 15:47 GMT
Are Tories going back to basics?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

For a party that has traditionally placed the family and, importantly, marriage at the centre of its social agenda, the Tories seem to have had an unhappy knack of tripping themselves up every time they mention the issue.

Family breakdown a cause of social problems
Most famously, former prime minister John Major's "back to basics" message was seen as a green light for Labour and the media to turn the spotlight onto Tory MPs' personal behaviour and morality.

What followed was a series of scandals in Tory ranks and the "sleaze" allegations which buffeted the party right through the 1997 general election and beyond.

Now, former leader Iain Duncan Smith has returned to the issue with the report from his policy review claiming family breakdowns are at the root of much social breakdown and deprivation.

This time, the Tories are determined the reaction to it will be different and there are some signs they may be right and that Mr Duncan Smith has highlighted an issue that is near the top of voters' concerns.

Same sex

Party leader David Cameron has embraced the report, saying it "underlines my belief that the family is the most important institution in Britain and that if we are serious about tackling the causes of poverty and social breakdown then we must look at ways of supporting families and also supporting marriage so that couples are encouraged to get together and stay together".

Iain Duncan Smith
Mr Duncan Smith wants serious debate on issues
Mr Duncan Smith is eager to dismiss comparisons with previous policies and stresses his 300,000 word report goes far wider than simply the family and is in no way an attack on either single parents or same sex couples.

But, in addressing what is going wrong in society - violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, deprivation and the creation of an underclass - he has concluded family breakdown plays a pivotal part.

Tory traditionalists, unhappy with Mr Cameron's "liberal" social agenda, will welcome the analysis that it is stable families and marriage which should provide the solution to many of society's problems.

But they have also noted his previous support for same sex "marriages" and apparent backing for transferable tax allowances for couples of any sex bringing up children. That is less to their taste.

And, predictably, some Labour ministers have seized on the report to suggest this is the Tories reviving the "back to basics" and "Victorian values" ideas floated by Mr Major and Lady Thatcher respectively.

John Hutton
Mr Hutton spoke of back to basics

Labour ministers led by work and pensions secretary John Hutton, have insisted the family and personal responsibility are central to the government's thinking.

Mr Hutton is even planning to "name and shame" absentee parents who refuse to support their children.

And there seems to be no major dispute between the parties over Mr Duncan Smith's findings on the nature of the problem. Indeed, with the Conservatives being seen to take the issue of poverty so seriously, there may even be a fear that he has moved onto what should be natural Labour territory.

So will the debate really be different this time - without the "finger wagging" Mr Duncan Smith wants to avoid - and focus on what best can be done by governments to heal the breakdown in family life?

While there have been attacks on the Tories for allegedly "going back to basics", social exclusion minister Pat McFadden has concentrated his assault more on the parties' different policies for encouraging family life.

It may also be the case, of course, that it would suit neither party to get involved in a row over alleged sleaze at this time.

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