The centre ground is a popular place to be. Listening to David Cameron and Gordon Brown proclaim their occupation of this most crowded territory, voters may judge that there is nothing to choose between them. But a shift from political topography to the specifics of policy shows that their thinking remains markedly different, as the warm Conservative reaction to a think tank report on childcare showed yesterday.
Just as labor announced that it had beaten a target to open 2,500 children''s centers, the Tory-leaning Policy Exchange proposed overhauling early-years care. labor stresses the guarantee of quality care and support into work, but for Policy Exchange the watchword is choice. Targeted tax credits that help working parents meet the costs of accredited care would be scrapped, and replaced with a £55 flat-rate parental care allowance, paid regardless of circumstance. The eye-catching scheme has an obvious appeal to mothers who choose to stay at home - as well as to traditionalists who want to encourage them to stay there.
Rather less obvious are those who would lose from the scheme - starting with working lone parents. They are currently entitled to as much as £240 towards weekly childcare bills. If support was capped at £55, many would find that they could no longer afford to work. How exactly that would fit with tough Conservative talk on welfare-to-work is, to say the least, unclear. Then there is the effect on those children whose cash-strapped parents would respond to the withdrawal of subsidy by plumping for cheap, low-quality care. That effect would be all the more dramatic if, as the report suggests, funds were released to extend the scheme by scrapping free nursery places. Authoritative research at the Institute for Education has established that a year of pre-schooling can increase the subsequent educational performance of poorer children by as much as a £10,000 boost in family income. The new allowance would provide a fraction of that - especially when the report''s small print makes plain that more of the cash would go to the richest 10% than any other income bracket.
The biggest question, however, is financial. Even if the losers got no relief, the plan would carry a price tag of £4bn - a large sum for any party, but especially for one aspiring to tax cuts. The Conservatives wisely endorsed the aspiration of the report, without the specifics, exempting themselves from having to explain where the money would come from. But the Tories, ahead in the polls, need to start taking more care about what they wish for. Before long they could find themselves charged with making their wishes come true. Pre: This is No Bankers'' Bet
Next: The Most Potent Weapon Wielded By the Empires of Murdoch and China