Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Can anyone stop Cameron's personal booze crusade?

There's an extraordinary story in the Telegraph - extraordinary not for what it says, which is that if (when) the government imposes a minimum unit alcohol price, probably 45p, multi-buy deals such as M&S's dinner + wine for £10 will be illegal - but for what it reveals about the open revolt within the Cabinet over the proposal.  Thus "a source" complains that "a policy that’s supposed to stop drunks and out-of-control teenagers ends up preventing respectable middle-class couples having a cheap dinner at home."  The policy is said to have have "raised fears inside the Government that middle-class drinkers will be hit hardest," and will therefore be a vote-loser.

It's not exactly news that David Cameron's desire to impose a minimum unit price, which will supposedly curb excessive drinking,  hasn't found much favour among his colleagues.  The former health secretary Andrew Lansley was said to have been particularly firm in his opposition, though his successor Jeremy Hunt may be more amenable to Cameron's way of thinking.  What's remarkable is the timing.  The announcement of a Home Office "consultation" on a MUP is due, after several delays, to be made tomorrow.  The Telegraph report, along with a flurry of others in recent days, looks like a determined attempt by someone within the government, possibly even within the Cabinet, to sabotage the proposal at the last minute. 

This comes after a report for the Adam Smith Institute by Chris Snowdon picked apart the computer modelling that led the government to claim that a 50p per unit price would save thousands of lives, concluding that the assessment was based on assumptions which "range from the questionable to the demonstrably false."  In Scotland, the proposal has already been driven through by the SNP administration, but faces a strong legal challenge on the basis of EU competition law.  Why the urgency in England?  Scotland has a worse drink "problem" than England.  If a minimum price is the answer, and is not in fact illegal, then the effect of the policy will soon become evident.  If it doesn't work, then adopting a wait-and-see approach in England would spare the government from an embarrassing (and no-doubt unpopular) failure.

The Minimum Price, while long demanded by the health lobby (which seems to believe that reducing the chance of early death is the only goal worth striving for in life) is only being forced on England because it is Cameron's personal obsession.  Cameron has a regrettable tendency - it's the most irritating thing about him - to go off on moral crusades.  He likes to ride a high horse, even though it usually turns out to have been lent to him by the husband of Rebekah Brooks.  We've seen it over "sexualisation" and now we're seeing it over alcohol.  His alcohol policy is of course inherently illiberal and unConservative (if people want to drink themselves to death, that's their right in a free society), but it's also bad, stupid and unnecessary.  Even were it to work, it would do so by increasing the profits of drinks retailers.  If the aim is to increase the price of alcohol, that could be achieved much more simply through higher duty, which would be entirely legal and would also benefit the Treasury.  Banning multi-buy deals will mostly hit people who are catering for parties or weddings. 

It's not even as though England and Wales have, by European standards, a particularly serious drink problem.  Consumption has been falling steadily for the best part of a decade, and has fallen most rapidly among the young - about whose supposed tendency to "binge drink" most of this moral panic revolves.  Extraordinarily, according to the most recent NHS statistics fewer than half of those aged 16-24 report having more than one alcoholic drink per week.  Among under-16s, the proportion had fallen over the decade from more than a quarter to a mere 13%.  A mere 5% of adult women and 9% of adult men reported drinking alcohol every day.  While it's in the interests of health campaigners to scare-monger about an increasing alcohol problem, the facts tell a different story.  Drinking will probably continue to fall in the years ahead, whatever the government decides to do.  If Cameron gets his way, no doubt he will want to give his MUP the credit for any reduction that occurs, but he will have no statistical justification for doing so.

Despite claims that the policy is aimed only at cheap booze and loss-leaders, MUP will push up the price of alcohol for all consumers.  It will hit the poor hardest, but the already-squeezed middle will be affected as well: the "hard-working families" who will be punished for wanting to relax over a bottle of wine at the end of a hard-working week; the pensioners who have few other pleasures in life.  And, of course, most members of the government know this only too well.  The policy may be popular with the killjoy BMA (or perhaps not: they want a Minimum Price of at least 50p a unit), it will go down badly with ordinary voters (and, to judge by Conservative Home, is already hated by grassroots Tories).  It will do next to nothing to tackle hardened drinking and won't even result in increased tax revenues.  Oh, and it will also be devastating for the Cornish cider industry.

So why is it happening?  How is Cameron able to drive through a policy no-one in his Cabinet wants, is unlikely to achieve its aims, targets a "problem" that is in fact diminishing with every passing year, will be stunningly unpopular and is probably illegal anyway?  Britain is not supposed to be an autocracy, in which one man's personal obsession makes law.  The business reminds me of the poll tax fiasco, which was Mrs Thatcher's personal project, imposed on an unwilling Cabinet and against much backbench opposition, which rightly saw it as an impending disaster.  Reports like today's in the Telegraph show that opposition to Cameron's scheme is, if anything, growing within government.  That should be enough to call a halt. 

I don't think that Cameron's stupid, however high-handed and pig-headed he is at times.  I think he knows that minimum unit pricing is a bad idea.  The trouble is that he is personally and publicly committed to it.  Not only has he announced his support for it, he has made great claims for what it will achieve.  A climbdown now would be seen as a failure of leadership, just it would have been a failure of leadership for Mrs Thatcher to have abandoned the poll tax.  If he abandoned the policy he would seem to be abandoning the goals that the policy is supposed to realise.  To demonstrate both his personal commitment to ending "binge drinking" and his authority as a leader, he feels bound to drive through a bad policy.  This is something that happens all too often in our political system.