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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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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