Sunday, 17 January 2010

Tories toasting themselves on tax breaks for married couples

Recently, David Cameron came unstuck over planned tax breaks for married couples, first of all claiming they were absolutely definitely going to happen, then they were just a nice idea that they'd like to do if they could, then definitely absolutely going to happen again:

But there was confusion over policy on tax breaks for married couples, a long-standing priority for many in the party, after Mr Cameron appeared to say he could not give a guarantee to legislate in the next Parliament.

"It is something we want to do, it is something we believe we can do, it is something within a parliament I would definitely hope to do," he said in an interview with BBC political editor Nick Robinson.

"But I am not able today to make that promise because today we face this vast budget deficit."


But soon after the interview, the Tories released a statement saying they would "definitely" recognise marriage in the tax system over the course of the next Parliament and would give more details in "due course".

Labour said the Tories were in "disarray" over the issue, saying such a policy could cost £5bn to implement.

The Tories said there were a number of different options for taking the policy forward, costing different amounts, and they were studying the experiences of other countries. (1)

The last line, I think is the giveaway - "a number of different options for taking the policy forward, costing different amounts". that doesn't sound like whole-hearted commitment to me.

The reason I'm blogging about this now, when Cameron's blunder was almost two weeks ago. David Willetts, a member of Cameron's shadow cabinet, is calling for something more than a gesture, and at the same time not to try to strait-jacket people into a particular way of life through the tax system:

David Willetts, the shadow families minister, appears to put himself at odds with the Tory leader's passionate defence of marriage by warning that people must not be told "how to live their lives". In remarks that are normally out of bounds for any senior Conservative, Mr Willetts raises the spectre of John Major's ill-fated call for a return to family values in the last Tory government in reference to Mr Cameron's flagship policy on tax breaks for married couples.

In a discussion with women from the parenting website Mumsnet to be broadcast on BBC1's Politics Show today, Mr Willetts defends the Tory policy of recognising marriage in the tax system, but says it should be about finding a practical solution to help ease the tax burden for families. This jars with Mr Cameron's declaration earlier this month that the marriage policy was "about the message more than the money".

Asked if he was worried that the policy had echoes of back to basics, Mr Willetts, who was a minister in the Major government, says: "You are absolutely right to warn about the ghost of back to basics, and the last thing people want is politicians setting themselves up as somehow morally superior or telling people how to run their lives. I think if you look at the way in which David Cameron, Maria Miller [shadow families minister] and myself have talked about this and addressed this, it's not some kind of pompous attempt to tell people how to live their lives. We are very much looking at the evidence."

He says evidence shows commitment between two adults is a "good thing", but adds: "Now, we all know the real world, all the pressures, and how not every relationship stays together. We completely understand that." (2)

It's always good to see opposition parties tearing themselves to pieces BEFORE they've attended to the small matter of actually winning power.

Cameron is wanting to reward marriage through the tax system, albeit in a token way, with a tax break so minimal (What else can "about the message more than the money" mean?) that it will allow married coupels to celebrate their anniversary with a packet of crisps, as long as they don't go for the posh brands.

Willetts is warning him about banging on the Family values drum, the Tory equivalent of Labour's recent attacks on Cameron for being posh (because barristers like Tony Blair are so very representative of the blue collar masses).

But there is a third thing that needs to be thought about here.

It does make you wonder if the Tories can really deliver a tax cut that only targets married, heterosexual couples, without violating all manner of human rights and non-discrimination conventions and treaties. Homosexuals can now register their relationship in Britain, and committed de facto couples exist there just like here. It certainly raises the question of a legal challenge for the tax break - no matter how cursory - to be applied to de facto and homosexual couples as well, on the basis that they should receive the same entitlements as married couples.

Which raises a tactical problem for Cameron, albeit one he won't have to worry about until after he has the keys to Number ten in hi shot little hand. If there is a challenge, does he fight it or acquiesce? If he does the former he will risk his 'trendy Tory' image by insisting it only applies to married heterosexual couples, and opens himself to accusations of hypocrisy as he voted against the repeal of the loathsome Section 28, a Tory policy banning schools from 'promoting' homosexuality. he's since apologised for the policy, lock, stock, and barrel, but it will still look very odd to see him rewarding homosexual couples through the tax system.

Or, by agreeing that it should be extended, he risks annoying his conservative support base by extending it to include gayers and the those cavorting in sinful non-matrimonial lust.

I suspect Cameron, being a cynical and pragmatic operator, would opt for the latter, as the damage will be proportional to the size of the tax cut, and thus minimal. Still, the Tories giving tax cuts to gays. Who would have thought it?

1 - "Labour and Tories clash over tax and spending," unattributed BBC article. Published by the BBC Online, 5th of January, 2010. (
2 - "Senior Tory warns against raising spectre of 'back to basics' on marriage," by Jane Merrick. Published in the Independent, 17th of january, 2010. (

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