July 5, 2013 6:25 pm

Robert Shrimsley: Tax relief – the icing on the cake

David Cameron’s plan looks like another financial incentive for marriage, but the internal party politics of the proposal are entirely obvious
Illustration by Lucas Varela of a married couple with a tax man on top of a cake©Lucas Varela

What fools we were; what mad romantic fools. How hot must have run our passion on the day we married, for we rushed headlong into wedlock without the sniff of a financial incentive to shore up our devotion.

We had no excuse. We were not naive teens but supposedly sensible thirtysomethings. We’d read Wuthering Heights but somehow we hadn’t absorbed the haunting passage in which Cathy spurns Heathcliff because they were ineligible for a transferable tax allowance. The lack of a married couple’s dowry is, of course, the unstated reason why Humphrey Bogart sent Ingrid Bergman packing at the end of Casablanca. It’s a shame, but hey, they’ll always have Paris.

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Robert Shrimsley

So the news that David Cameron has come up with a new plan to bung some bunce at those joined in holy matrimony simply highlighted the reckless nature of our relationship. We may not have skipped across the border to Gretna Green but we married without so much as a manifesto promise of extra tax relief from the government.

Against the odds, our union prevailed. There were some tough times and I did sometimes wonder if the government would ever come up with the extra £12.50 a month tax break that might validate our relationship. Even during happy times, I always felt there was something missing and now I know what it was – the official blessing that comes with a small emolument tossed at us by a Tory party trying to reconnect with the Daily Mail.

Now Mr Cameron is set to rectify this historic injustice. Estimates suggest this could be worth as much as £150 a year. Doubtless churches and registry offices are even now preparing for a stampede of couples desperate to get their bridal bonanza. In any case, it is apparently jolly popular with Conservative MPs who are feeling a little bashed around at the moment because they have to be nice to gays and Liberal Democrats. It may not make much sense as an instrument of public policy but the internal party politics of this are entirely obvious.

Like all taxpayers, I’m only too happy to see my hard-earned money used to smooth out internal Tory differences. If, by paying a little more income tax, I can help keep the factions united, well, I can think of few better uses for my cash. Indeed, in a way it is helping to maintain a marriage – between the old-school Tory traditionalists and the not-entirely-principled modernising wing.

The allowance will also be transferable if only one partner works, which is super because £150 a year could take a healthy bite from the cost of a gym membership. In this aspect it is less a tax break for marriage, than a tax break for marriage in which only one spouse works; and since in those relationships where a partner chooses not to work, it tends to be the woman, this is largely a subsidy for female domesticity.

It is always nice to pay a little less tax – just ask any multinational – and few voters will bridle at having some extra cash in their pocket; £12.50 may not seem much to many people but to some it will make a difference. Perhaps the payment can be integrated into the great day along with throwing the bouquet, kissing the bride and cringing at the best man’s speech. HMRC inspectors could become a fixture at ceremonies, filling the role once occupied by chimney sweeps.

But I’ve always struggled with the notion of financial incentives for marriage – not least the specious argument that this sends a vital societal nudge. It is strange how the most avid proponents of marriage can regard it as both the fundamental bedrock of society and yet so fragile as needing the support of a few extra quid a month. Nor is it likely to save a marriage once it is on the rocks. People may stay together for the sake of the children, but not for the chancellor.

But perhaps I am out of touch with the true romantics. After all, wasn’t it Shakespeare who wrote: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more tax-efficient.”

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robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Twitter @robertshrimsley

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