The Tories' marriage tax allowance will further poison their brand

The new measure encourages the perception that the party is for some, not for all. 

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During the 2010 election, David Cameron memorably stumbled when he said that it was his "hope" that the Conservatives would be able to introduce a marriage tax allowance if elected. The backlash that followed at the vagueness of his promise forced him to clarify that "It's something we will definitely do in the next parliament." Five years later, Cameron has finally delivered on his pledge. From today, married couples and civil partners will be able to register for the tax break, which is formally introduced on 6 April.

The £600m policy is more significant for its symbolism than its content. An individual who is not using all of their personal allowance will be permitted to transfer up to £1,060 to their partner (provided he or she does not earn more than £42,385 a year), reducing their tax bill by a maximum of £212. Since this amounts to a saving of just 1 per cent on the average wedding, few are likely to be compelled to walk down the aisle. And despite the broad promise to "recognise marriage" in the tax system, just a third of couples will benefit from the measure. Couples who both earn above the personal allowance or in which one member is a higher rate taxpayer are excluded.

As I said, it's the symbolism that counts. The problem for the Tories is that does so in ways that could harm them. By privileging married couples in the tax system, the policy risks reinforcing the most damaging perception about the party: that it is for some, not for all. In a GQ article in 2013, Andy Coulson described the perception that the Tories frown upon single parents as "electoral halitosis". But this policy unambiguously discriminates against them. Others effectively penalised under the new system include widows and widowers, those who leave abusive relationships and working couples. The philanderer on his third marriage gains, while the hard-pressed single mother is ignored. 

By offering the allowance to those couples in which one member earns below the personal allowance (or simply doesn't earn), the Tories risk sending the message that they still believe a woman's place (for it is usually a woman) is at home. The irony is that this runs counter to almost all of the other policies introduced by the coalition. By increasing the personal allowance from £6,475 to £10,000, reserving childcare support for dual-earners and removing child benefit from single-earners, it has sought to sharpen work incentives. The new measure achieves the reverse. 

It is partly for these reasons that George Osborne, one of the most liberal Conservative MPs, has long regarded the policy as "a turkey", both politically and economically (one of the factors behind its prolonged birth). That it will nevertheless be introduced in the middle of the general election campaign is further evidence of why the Chancellor's party is in no state to win a majority

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.