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23 March 2012

Lansley sidelined by Cameron over alcohol pricing

Health Secretary has described minimum alcohol pricing as "absurd".

By George Eaton

We can now say with certainty that today’s government announcement on minimum alcohol pricing was intended to distract attention from the Budget. As Paul Waugh notes on Twitter, in the last 10 years there have only been three ministerial statements on a Friday: one on Libya, one on swine flu and one on the Iraq war. The government didn’t even bother to inform members of the home affairs committee in advance of the announcement.

The other unusual thing about today’s Commons statement was that it was delivered by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, rather than the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley. Does the government really see this as an issue of public order rather than health? A more likely explanation is that David Cameron didn’t want Lansley, who has publicly opposed minimum pricing [he once called it “absurd”], to front the policy. In an interview with the Spectator last year, Lansley remarked:

I don’t like a minimum price, we are acting against below cost selling. My problem with a minimum price, well I have two problems. One is it’s regressive, so there are perfectly normal families who just don’t happen to have much money who like to buy cheap beer or cheap wine. Should they be prevented? No, I don’t think so and if you put in a minimum price, one of the journalists calculated that if you set it at 50p a unit it would add £600 million to the profits of retailers and drinks manufacturers which doesn’t seem to me to be the right thing to do in these circumstances.

Cameron’s decision to overrule Lansley will add to speculation that he will be replaced in a summer reshuffle. In the meantime, it will be worth watching to see how the Health Secretary responds when he is inevitably questioned about the plans.

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