LONDON (Reuters) - A flagship tax policy promised by Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party remained on track to be delivered, an official said on Saturday, after a senior minister cast doubt on it.
Cabinet Minister Ken Clarke expressed doubts over the chances of the government implementing the tax plans, which would benefit married couples, before the next national elections due in 2015.
The suggestion in a newspaper interview was another potential embarrassment for the gaffe-prone administration. It added to an image of dither and disorganisation in the government that has gathered pace following a series of policy u-turns following an unpopular budget in March.
"We never committed ourselves to married couples' tax by the end of the parliament," Clarke told the Daily Telegraph in the interview.
"I'm married, I'm not counting on it. I don't remember anyone promising that kind of thing," he said.
A spokesman for Clarke later said the minister had merely expressed an opinion.
"It was a comment, not a statement of policy," said the spokesman. "Any tax changes are a matter for the Chancellor. He accepts the changes will happen."
The Conservatives promised the tax changes before coming to power in 2010 as part of pro-family policies aimed at encouraging couples to stay together.
Cameron has vowed to implement the moves, although they are opposed by his junior Lib Dem coalition partners.
Clarke's comments come just days after data showed the economy had returned to growth, giving Cameron hope he could calm criticism after months of policy reverses and last week's drawn-out resignation of a minister who swore at a policeman.
Clarke, 72, a former finance minister on the left of the party, also dampened expectations that a 1 percent jump in gross domestic product in the third quarter, after three quarters of decline, spelled the end of Britain's economic woes.
"It would be absolute folly to turn around and say it will all be fine by Christmas. Anybody who says we are absolutely certain we are bouncing back to strong growth is being very optimistic," he said.
He risked adding to Cameron's political difficulties by warning of the dangers of Conservative legislators talking up the prospects of Britain leaving the European Union.
Cameron, under pressure from an increasingly influential "eurosceptic" faction within his party, wants to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU and hold a referendum on the outcome, although he is opposed to a straight "in/out" vote.
"To start threatening, throwing into the air our relationship with the outside world, with the global economy, would I think be very reckless," Clarke said.
"I frequently say that to several of my colleagues - there seems little point in opening up the debate at the moment about our membership of the European Union," he added, striking a pro-European tone rarely heard these days from senior Conservatives.
"The idea that somehow the present problems are caused by Britain's membership of the European Union is a theory that I can't quite follow."
Cameron demoted Clarke from justice minister in a reshuffle last month, but kept him in the Cabinet as a non-departmental minister with a roving brief across government.
(Reporting by Tim Castle and Alessandra Rizzo; Editing by Peter Cooney and Helen Massy-Beresford)