The Sketch: Alcoshambles! And how Theresa May overruled herself on minimum pricing

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Theresa May has achieved the rare feat of exciting even more interest by her absences than by her presence, like Greta Garbo.

Much of Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper’s speech today was about the mystery of her opposite number’s whereabouts, when she might have been expected to answer an Urgent Question on a highly topical  issue of departmental policy.  “Her office will not tell me where she is today,” she plaintively told MPs.

The reason was obvious: alcoshambles! When you’re talked up as a future leader it’s clearly beneath your dignity to be dragged to the Commons to explain why a measure which you have repeatedly endorsed has vanished into thin air. Especially  if, as Ms Cooper claimed, Ms May had briefed that she herself had  “blocked” the Downing Street-backed plan to set minimum alcohol prices. “We know that the Home Secretary has overruled the Prime Minister; it appears she has also overruled herself.”

Instead, said Ms Cooper, the “Macavity-like”  Ms May had sent her Minister of State Jeremy Browne to “waffle to the world”. For once this was not mere politician’s hyperbole. Indeed, Browne was an ideal choice to finesse the pretence that there hadn’t been a U-turn, and that the ministers were now poring open-mindedly  over the  results of a  consultation exercise. Asked bluntly by the Tory Philip Hollobone about what side the “balance” of these had come down on, Browne said with wonderful meaninglessness that there had been a “range of responses.”

As a libertarian — and he used the l-word a lot — he  has never shown enthusiasm for the policy. He has a West Country constituency  (like  Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, who showed that his own party is also not exactly united with a dire  warning that the cider industry would be “devastated” by minimum pricing) And  he positively revelled in discussing — at  length —  every aspect – social, medical, even  philosophical — of what he clearly found a fascinating dilemma. It’s just that since the Government had been committed to minimum pricing, we didn’t know until this week that there was a  dilemma. Or — as Browne failed to say— that it had resolved it by ditching the policy. 

When his Lib Dem colleague Andrew George pointed out that the Commons Health Committee had been unanimously in favour of minimum pricing, Browne said that was natural for a Health Committee but “if we had a libertarian Select Committee, it might say that people should be free to drink even in ways that damaged their health, which would also be a legitimate point of view.”  Er yes, Jeremy, and if there was a temperance Select Committee they would say that was complete tosh. And if there was a cider committee....And so on.

With the Scottish government planning to impose a 50p per unit minimum price, another Lib Dem, Sir Alan Beith warned that if England failed to follow suit , Northumberland’s Labour council intended to promote the county “as a cheap booze destination for Scots.“  Now that really is a terrifying prospect.