It looked like the Cabinet would act against instinct on alcohol pricing. What a shame it didn't

The u-turn on this policy will cost lives, and Cameron could have driven it through

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Some U-turns are more significant than others. The Cabinet’s original public support for minimum alcohol pricing was as heartening as it was surprising. Here was a team of ministers with an instinctive, ideological wariness of the state deciding that the Government should intervene through a price mechanism. Now we discover that the move was so counterintuitive that it is not going to happen.

The free-market purists have flexed their muscles. The Treasury frets about the loss of revenue. Worries are raised once more about whether the policy violates competition law. A policy hailed by David Cameron not so long ago as being part of a “big bang” approach to alcohol problems becomes a pathetic whimper.

The decision to support minimum alcohol pricing in the first place was driven by Cameron virtually alone. To his credit the Prime Minister has an ability to listen, weigh up evidence, and act. But he can also be alarmingly casual, as the Office for Budget Responsibility became the latest body to discover when it had to correct a section of Cameron’s speech on the economy last week.

Among those he listened to on minimum alcohol pricing was a range of medical specialists including the GP and Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, the BMA and the Government’s own medical specialists. As Wollaston argued during Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, the case they made to him was entirely evidence-based. A decision to scrap the policy would cost lives.

After examining the evidence, Cameron decided to support minimum pricing in spite of the opposition of his cabinet colleagues. The then Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, was a passionate opponent. Theresa May had her doubts, partly on legal grounds. Nonetheless, she was the main interviewee put up by the Government to defend minimum pricing. Last year she told the BBC: “Too many people think it’s a great night out to get really drunk and have a fight in our streets.”

Cameron’s decision was genuinely bold. Labour ministers rejected the proposal in 2009, a year before the election, fearing a backlash from poorer voters. Significantly, though, the current shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, declared her support, at least in principle, for the proposals. The Prime Minister was in one of his more forensic moods, urging ministers to follow closely what was happening in Scotland where broadly similar proposals were being implemented. Last year, London-based ministers announced that the minimum price per unit would be at least 45p, significantly altering the cost of super-strength lager and cheap spirits. No 10 was keen to stress that this was very much Cameron driving through a policy that could help address the problem of an estimated 8,000 premature deaths a year, and save a fortune in healthcare and crime prevention.

The purists in the Cabinet were never happy. They had come to power in order to let a thousand flowers bloom – or rot – with minimum government interference. The Treasury is incapable of calculating medium-term benefits when it fears short-term losses in revenue such as those brought about by minimum pricing. Legal fears about competition policy were raised once more. Now Cameron has opted to put the policy on a shelf, where it will stay for a very long time.

It is tempting to view the sequence of events as all part of the febrile state of the Tory party. There is much apparent evidence. When he was stronger, Cameron was able to see off dissenting ministers, including Lansley. Now he is weaker and cabinet ministers are finding their voices, in public and behind the scenes. Almost inevitably, Theresa May is a key player, as she seems to be in each episode of the ongoing drama at the top of her party. A determined opponent of minimum pricing, she has prevailed – another moment that helps transform her from decent, reliable minister to the party’s new messiah. As far as speculative stories about the leadership are concerned, she is starting to pop up as often as Gordon Brown used to do under Tony Blair.

May’s elevation is a consequence, not a cause, of the party’s current doubts about Cameron. Policy areas involving personal conduct – such as alcohol consumption – are rarely those in which ministers seek to define themselves. When the Labour government introduced the smoking ban, ministers debated the issue because they had strong views on it – not because they regarded it as a stepping stone to the top.

Cameron could still have prevailed if he had chosen to. No minister would resign over it. The U-turn is his. It was not a case of a cunningly assertive May or a newly confident Lansley or a politely determined Michael Gove – who was always politely opposed – forcing it on him.

It’s the decision that matters, not any scheming behind it. In politics, it is often the unexpected policies that have most impact, not those that dominate election campaigns or the news agenda. Harold Wilson was proudest of the Open University, one of his few policies that were not the subject of raging scrutiny. Under Blair, the smoking ban will prove to be similarly enduring. Already it saves lives, reduces health costs and improves people’s quality of life.

Blair was fearful of appearing nanny-ish. He wondered whether the policy would be enforceable, and was afraid of it being unpopular. But, in the end, he went ahead, noting in a revealing phrase that “people have given their permission”. The smoking ban was a liberal measure, freeing non-smokers from breathing in smoke, and potential addicts from being tempted. The shelving of minimum prices suggests to me that this Government would not have introduced the smoking ban. In the end, from Cameron downwards, there is no great will or inclination to regard the state as a potentially benevolent force. Nanny will stay away and the kids will be free to run riot and kill themselves on cheap booze.

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