The Times attacks “worryingly confused” Tory marriage tax plan

Is this a tax cut too far for the Conservatives?

Following three days when National Insurance dominated this economy-laden election campaign, attention now switches to the Tories' marriage tax allowance. Details of the plan have emerged this morning and boil down to this:

  • Four million married couples and those in civil partnerships would qualify for the tax break
  • An eligible couple would be able to transfer £750 in tax allowance from the higher-earning partner to the lower-earning partner
  • The maximum benefit will be £150 a year -- or just under £3 a week
  • The tax break would fall sharply in a marriage where the higher earner is on more than £42,500
  • It will be funded by a tax levied on wholesale lending in the City

The Times, for one, doesn't like it. Here are some choice cuts from this morning's leader:

The Tories propose to recognise marriage in the tax system, paid for by a levy on the banks. This is bad social policy advanced by an arbitrary means.

This is surely no time to be giving money away so that people can just carry on doing what they are already doing, namely being married.

In a long philosophical journey in opposition, the Tories appear to have alighted on moral authoritarianism advanced by economic interventionism. These are the wrong answers.

This policy is worryingly confused. At a time when the main message of the Conservative campaign is that there is no money, it is odd indeed to be offering handouts.

Remember, this is the delivery of a promise made by David Cameron when he was running for the leadership of the party five years ago. For one of the country's most influential -- and broadly politically non-aligned -- newspapers to be so vehemently opposed to a policy so closely associated with the party leader has to be a concern.

Meanwhile, over on the Next Left blog, Sunder Katwala argues that by trying to counter criticism that the tax break would be regressive, the Tories have landed themselves with a confused policy. Katwala notes:

The policy doesn't send a simple "pro-marriage signal" any more.

The core distinction is no longer between the married and the not married.

Instead, the policy now signals that some marriages are valued while others are not.

Some good news for the Conservatives comes in a Harris opinion poll for the Daily Mail. Asking a one-off question, the pollster found that 65 per cent of respondents believe the next government should support marriage by raising tax allowances for married couples, with 35 per cent disagreeing.

But as Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report notes, "It's one of those questions that depend a lot on how it's asked."

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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