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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6 times government ministers have contradicted each other over Brexit

Getting your line straight is slightly more complex than a moon landing. 

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Theresa May told Jeremy Paxman during the 2017 general election campaign. Almost exactly two months on, her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has declared the UK will seek a transitional deal that could last three years.

Hammond’s comments come a day after government ministers contradicted themselves over when free movement could end. “Strong and stable”, the Tory campaign slogan, has gone the way of Labour’s Ed Stone. 

Here’s a selection of times government ministers have contradicted each other over Brexit.

1. Free movement

Brandon Lewis vs Amber Rudd and Michael Gove

The immigration minister Brandon Lewis declared on 27 July that a new immigration system would be in place from the spring of 2019.

But his departmental boss, the home secretary Amber Rudd, said the same day that there would be an “implementation period” while the flow of EU workers continued and there would be no cliff edge.

Meanwhile, environment secretary Michael Gove and non-expert Brexiteer said days earlier that there was likely to be a transitional period where free movement continued for two years.

2. Chlorinated chicken

Michael Gove vs Liam Fox

One question emerging from discussion of a potential UK-US trade deal was whether chlorine-washed chicken would be allowed into British supermarkets. The international trade secretary Liam Fox said such chicken was “perfectly safe”.

He may not have been round to Michael Gove’s recently for dinner, then. The environment secretary said he opposed the import of chlorine-washed chicken and that “we are not going to dilute our high food-safety standards” in pursuit of “any trade deal”. 

3. Moon landings

David Davis vs Liam Fox

In June, Brexit secretary David Davis suggested the negotiations to leave the EU were more complicated than landing on the moon.

His fellow Brexiteer Liam Fox, on the other hand, said in July that a future UK-EU trade deal should be “the easiest in human history”. Then again, maybe he just has a different definition of easy.

4. Single market and customs union

David Davis vs Philip Hammond

Perhaps one reason the Brexit secretary is finding it so tricky is that on 27 June he told a conference he plans to leave the single market and customs union by March 2019

But the Chancellor, aka the Mopper Up of Economic Mess, stressed Britain was heading down a “smooth and orderly path”. 

5. EU army

Michael Fallon vs Boris Johnson

In 2016, fresh from a Leave campaign which warned of the dangers of an EU army, foreign secretary Boris Johnson voiced his support for… an EU army.

Defence secretary Michael Fallon, though, had previously said the UK would continue to resist any rival to Nato. 

6. The migration cap

Theresa May vs David Davis and Philip Hammond

As home secretary, Theresa May defended the net migration cap, an idea the Tories thought up while in opposition, even though in practice it was widely criticised and never met. Even though, according to the George Osborne-edited Evening Standard, none of her colleagues privately back the target, it has stayed under her premiership. 

Some ministers have publicly questioned it as well. As early as March, Davis said immigration might go up after the UK leaves the EU.  In June, Hammond said the system for businesses recruiting foreign workers would not be more “onerous” than it is at present. 

(You can see all the ministers in the Brexit government that have realised reducing immigration might be a problem for them here)

 

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