Analysis: For better or worse?

Marriage tax breaks might seem like a simple no-brainer to Conservative strategists, but the policy could lose them as many votes as it gains.

By Alex Stevenson

Imagine David Cameron’s worst nightmare: a surprise Labour victory. When the post-mortem takes place the marriage tax break is held up as a key factor in the electoral failure. This was a policy which helped shore up the Tories’ core vote, but pushed away those who needed winning over, it’s found. By reinforcing Labour’s argument that fundamental Tory values haven’t shifted, the Tories shot themselves in the foot.

That extreme scenario seems far-fetched, especially as it’s far from clear marriage tax breaks will become an iconic issue of the 2010 campaign. But if the Tories find themselves in a hung parliament, even if they’re the biggest party, questions will be asked about their failure. Marriage tax breaks could be one of the answers.

One thing is certain: this is a bold policy, because it’s so easy to attack. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg landed an effective blow when he called it “Edwardian”. The decline of marriage in the last century is a social trend which the Tories are trying to buck, but doing so makes them appear stuck in the past. “David Cameron clearly has no idea about modern life,” Clegg said scornfully. Many moderates will agree with him.

Then there’s the Labour tactic: a wall of numbers. Work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper claimed earlier that, thanks to the Conservative plans to cut child tax credits, SureStart, the child trust fund and schools budgets, the average family on average earnings with two children will be £540 worse off under the Tories.

“I’m a great believer in marriage and the institution of marriage, but this is about giving a little with one hand and taking away a lot with the other,” Gordon Brown said this morning. By trying to offer something small the Conservatives have given Labour the opportunity to point to the bigger picture, one of austerity and cuts. It plays into Peter Mandelson’s ‘expose the Tories’ strategy.

What motivates the Conservatives, then, to present a policy which is so vulnerable to these criticisms? The answer is simple. It’s the same as any basic political calculation: Cameron believes there are more votes to be won than there are to be lost. Backing marriage comes as naturally to a Conservative as backing the workers does to a Labour supporter. The fundamental commitment to family is inherently Tory.

Perhaps the warning bells should have sounded when shadow business secretary Ken Clarke started making dissenting voices on the BBC’s Campaign Show. “I have been married for a very, very long time and my wife, I think, has not put up with me for the benefit of the old married couples tax allowance,” he said. (Clarke scrapped the old allowance when he was chancellor.)

It’s the moderates – people like Clarke – who the Tories need to win over. Backing marriage by tweaking the tax system is not going to help them do that.

In a close campaign, the Tories may live to regret their enthusiasm for an obviously outdated policy.