Politics Explained

Boris Johnson was never likely to introduce a sugar and salt tax

The PM is a recent recruit to the war on obesity and is all in favour of exercise and healthier eating. But, Sean O’Grady explains, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise he’s unwilling to back the tax proposal

<p>Hard to swallow: the idea would anger the PM’s backers in the press </p>

Hard to swallow: the idea would anger the PM’s backers in the press

It must have come as a great disappointment. No sooner had Henry Dimbleby, founder of Leon, foodie, food tsar and author of the National Food Strategy, lifted his intelligent, straight-talking, constructive report, a perfectly baked souffle of proposals, out of the oven before the prime minister flattened the pudding, and all the delicious hopes contained therein. Boris Johnson, who once wrote a column supporting parents smuggling chips and burgers into a school, is sceptical about the core proposal: “I’m not, I must say, attracted to the idea of extra taxes on our working people, let me just signal that, but I will study his report with interest.”

Given that inflation is rising and there is still plenty of economic uncertainty around, despite a recent boost to wages, it might be rash for the government to raise food prices via a salt and sugar tax, no matter how cleverly designed it may be. Dimbleby’s tax would be aimed at the food industry, to get hidden sugar and salt out of virtually all processed items, such as pasta sauces and ready meals. Yet the extra costs could eventually be passed on, to some extent, to consumers. The press, in particular the Sun and Daily Mail, have already voiced their opposition to the idea of, as they see it, ramping up the price of the weekly family food bill. Food taxes are regressive, and given that the root cause of food poverty is poverty and low incomes, the result might simply be to make it even tougher for hard-pressed families to make ends meet. The point about sugary and salt-laden foodstuffs, as Dimbleby recognises, is that they are tasty and addictive, and it is difficult for parents to prevent their children craving them. Dimbleby’s counter-proposal of “prescribing” fresh fruit and vegetables has been met with some scepticism. The Food and Drink Association suggest it is unwise for this government, of all governments, to be seen telling people what to eat and when. Food taxes have always been an emotive issue in British politics – going back to the Corn Laws and the Irish potato famine, and beyond – and this is a prime minister who prides himself on his judgement of what ordinary folk will and will not accept. Making Frosties more expensive isn’t, from what we know of him, the kind of thing he’d be instinctively in favour of.

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