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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.