17 Jan 2011

Can marriage row prevent political divorce?

It seems like yesterday they were dewy-eyed newlyweds. But seven months on, the odd couple of British politics would like it to be known they are at loggerheads about marriage, writes Gaby Hinsliff.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg at loggerheads over marriage tax breaks (Getty)

Nick Clegg is launching a report from the thinktank Demos (whose former director, Richard Reeves, now works for the Liberal Democrat leader) attacking David Cameron’s planned tax breaks for married couples.

While the Prime Minister insists supporting marriage could protect more children from the fallout of divorce, the report argues it’s not clear marriage is always best for children (stable one parent families may produce better outcomes than volatile, constantly arguing couples), concluding tax breaks are a “weak tool” to help children.

Cue, Mr Clegg must hope, a big juicy row with pro-marriage traditional Conservatives – and reassurance for those Lib Dems who fear the Coalition is becoming too cosy.

Marital spat

Yet there’s something odd about this marital spat. Picking a fight straight after a series of interviews in which Clegg promised to reveal more about disagreements in government risks the row looking rather too carefully stage-managed, even though the two leaders’ differences over marriage are genuine.

Besides, the Coalition agreement has already made clear the two parties disagree on this issue. Is reheating the marriage row really enough to prevent calls for political divorce?

It’s just possible we are witnessing not the end of a love affair but the beginning of a new one.

Yet in one respect there is a very real argument here, and it’s not just between the two parties. While Mr Cameron and his Welfare and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith have long been personally committed to tax breaks for marriage, several leading Conservative ministers – including the Chancellor – appear less enthralled. Ken Clarke has publicly mocked the idea, and privately some modernisers in Government agree. Many had assumed the tax break might be quietly shelved – until David Cameron suggested last year it could compensate some married couples for the loss of child benefit.

So it’s just possible we are witnessing not the end of a love affair but the beginning of a new one: a marriage of convenience between Lib Dems and those Conservatives keen to see the tax break deferred to a second parliament, perhaps on the face-saving grounds that it’s not currently affordable. In politics, the path of true love rarely runs smooth.

Gaby Hinsliff is a former Political Editor for The Observer newspaper.