Andrew Lansley has dropped his opposition to plans to enforce a 40p minimum alcohol-unit price in an attempt to hang on to his place in the Cabinet after his handling of the NHS reforms.
The Health Secretary is understood to be furious that David Cameron has overruled his concerns over the legality, morality and effectiveness of the proposal designed to tackle Britain's binge-drinking culture. It left Mr Lansley looking isolated and sparked suggestions he will lose his job in the next reshuffle.
On Friday, panicked Downing Street spin doctors "rushed forward" publication of the Government's alcohol strategy in an attempt to divert attention from the negative fall-out of the Budget, a source said. It overshadowed news of a voluntary deal struck by Mr Lansley with drinks companies to reduce alcohol content by one billion units by 2015. In a similar agreement, Coca-Cola, Subway and Tesco yesterday pledged to cut calories from their products to help to tackle obesity.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, appeared in the Commons to unveil the minimum unit price, a ban on multi-buy discount deals and a "zero tolerance" approach to drunken behaviour in A&E. It was only the fourth time such a policy statement has been made on a Friday in the last decade. "It was a ludicrous situation," said a Downing Street insider.
Aides to Mr Lansley insist he supports the Prime Minister's decision. But one Tory MP close to the Health Secretary said yesterday: "Andrew is seriously pissed off, but he knows that after the PM backed him on his Bill he has got to smile and go along with it." A friend of the minister added: "This is something that will inevitably cause a stink. Don't be surprised to see Tory MPs saying publicly what Andrew has been saying privately."
In her statement, Ms May called time on cans of lager being sold for as little as 20p and two-litre bottles of cider for sale at £1.69. She claimed a minimum unit price would tackle "the cheap alcohol and the bulk discount sales of alcohol that means people preload at home".
But in December, Mr Lansley ridiculed the idea that price alone could change behaviour of "preloaders". In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, he stated: "Are we really saying because a bottle of vodka is now £12.50 they are not going to preload with a bottle of vodka for a night out when they are in clubs where they are paying £5 for a drink? That is absurd." A minimum unit price would hit responsible drinkers who happen to be poor, he said. He warned Mr Cameron against thinking "if you raise the price all our problems will go away".
Andy Burnham, the shadow Health Secretary, said Mr Lansley was looking isolated. "After the utter shambles of the health Bill, it looks as if he is being moved towards the exit door."Reuse content