Sarah Wollaston: Cameron has caved in to lobbyists on minimum alcohol pricing

The Conservative MP criticises the PM's U-turn and says "we should all be aware" of Lynton Crosby's links to the alcohol and tobacco industries.

For this week's NS, I've interviewed Sarah Wollaston, the independent-minded Conservative MP for Totnes, who became the first parliamentary candidate to be selected through an open primary. We discussed the government's decision to abandon minimum alcohol pricing (which she is "devastated" about), the malign influence of Lynton Crosby and why David Cameron's inner circle is still, in her words, "too white, male and privileged". You'll have to pick up the magazine to read the full piece, but here are some of the highlights. 

Minimum alcohol pricing: "it's lobbying"

Wollaston, a former GP, devoted her maiden speech to the need to introduce minimum alcohol pricing and warns of disastrous consequences for public health if ministers do not think again. When I asked her what lay behind David Cameron's change of heart, she unhesistatingly replied: 

It’s lobbying. And to those who think that lobbying doesn’t work, well, if it didn’t work they wouldn’t be doing it.

She added: "I think we should fight back against that and I also think we should fight back against policy being driven by pollsters. There are some things that might be unpopular before they come in - a bit like seatbelts - but, actually, you look at the evidence, nobody now would say that seatbelts were a bad thing."

On Lynton Crosby's alcohol and tobacco links: "we should all be aware"

The abandonment of minimum pricing, plain cigarette packaging and a lobbyists’ register have all coincided with the arrival of Lynton Crosby as the Tories’ campaign manager. Wollaston is troubled by the influence of the man whose company Crosby Textor has lucrative ties to the alcohol and tobacco industries. She told me:

For someone giving direct advice at the heart of the government to have such close links with industry internationally - I think that’s something that we should all be aware of.

In view of this, I asked Wollaston whether she would like to see Crosby replaced. "It’s probably not sensible for me to be calling for somebody’s removal, because I don’t know enough about what else he’s doing - he may be having some very positive effects of which I’m not aware," she said, laughing in recognition of her lukewarm endorsement.

When I quoted Crosby’s alleged advice to Cameron to "scrape the barnacles off the boat" and focus on the "core issues" of the economy, immigration and welfare reform, she rolled her eyes and said: "Well, I’m sorry, actually if you look at the Health and Social Care Act, the one area that was left with government was public health. In fact, Lansley at one point wanted to call it the Department of Public Health, so public health is core government business."

On Cameron's Etonian inner circle: "it's a kind of blindess to how this looks"

Back in March, Wollaston warned Cameron that his inner circle looked "too white, male and privileged". After the appointment of two more old Etonians - Jo Johnson and Jesse Norman - to prominent policy positions, does she feel that the situation has got even worse?

I don’t think, genuinely, that anyone minds where any individual person went to school, I really don’t think it matters. But, you know, I went to excellent state schools, but I bet you that there are not five people from my two state secondary schools at the heart of government right now.

She added: 

I think it’s a kind of blindness to how this looks to other people and why it matters to other people. I’ve no doubt, individually these are extremely talented people, but it should be more than having a team of people around you who you feel comfortable with, because they have that shared background and experience. Sometimes, actually, it’s better to surround yourself with people who might challenge and disagree with you, you’re a better member of a team...This is something that they obviously don’t see, they don’t see something that to me seems pretty obvious"

Welfare refom: "I’ve very rarely ever met people who wanted to be on benefits"

I raised the case of Stephanie Botterill, the woman who killed herself over fears she would be unable to pay the "bedroom tax", with Wollaston and she told me: "It’s right that we look in detail about the circumstances and await what the coroner’s report is, but, in wider terms, when times are tough you really have to focus on what measures help to reduce suicide because we know that this is a pattern in previous recessions."

When I mentioned the "strivers/scroungers" rhetoric deployed by some politicians, she said: 

You do have to be very careful about the language that you use and you have to be doubly careful about the language that you use when times are tough, and also about the effect that it has. Nobody wants to be unemployed; I’ve very rarely ever met people who wanted to be on benefits, but I have met very many people who are trapped on benefits, there is an issue about that.

On the benefit cap: we should be prepared to say "it didn't work"

Throughout the interview, Wollaston returned repeatedly to the need for "evidence-based" policy (most notably in the case of minimum alcohol pricing). With this in mind, I raised the subject of the benefit cap, which Eric Pickles has privately warned could cost more than it saves due to the likely rise in homelessness. 

While she told me that she believed the cap would be "a good thing in the long term", she added that "if it isn't, we should be honest about that and change it."

You have to look at the evidence, so I think down the line, if there’s evidence that it’s costing us more, sometimes you have to bite the bullet and say ‘it didn’t work’”.

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who was elected in Totnes in 2010 after becoming the first parliamentary candidate to be selected through an open primary.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle