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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.