Borne Down In a Torrent of Gin and Beer

After his 1874 General Election defeat William Gladstone claimed that he had been ‘borne down in a torrent of gin and beer’. Of course it was nonsense and an elitist assumption that the newly enfranchised masses had been most motivated to vote against him by the changes to alcohol prices brought in with the Licencing Act. But politicians are always nervous that any changes to the price of alcohol might negatively affect their electoral chances.With this historical context in mind it is worth looking at the rumours that David Cameron is about to perform a U turn on the minimum prices for alcohol. It must firstly be stated that this policy was not in either of the coalition parties’ manifestos at the last election and is not something that has been particularly popular with their supporters. For both parties in government there is natural fear of the so called ‘nanny state’ interfering where it does not belong. Even for the Lib Dems there is the Millite tradition of non-intervention unless the act has the potential to harm others.

The merits of the policy are at best debatable. Certainly alcohol abuse is a problem in society, with Tory MP and Ex GP Sarah Wollaston claiming that it costs the country around £21bn a year to deal with the crime, violence and medical costs that result from it. Research has suggested that a 45p minimum unit charge would reduce drinking by 4.3% and this could save 2,000 lives within a decade. But there have been doubts as to whether these charges will just end up hitting the poorest drinkers, while those with more money to spend will not change their habits. It seems questionable that those most at risk will change their habits, with the Institute of Alcohol Studies noting that there was ”no discernible relationship between affordability and harm”.

But for the Prime Minister this has clearly been a policy that he believed in. He was outspoken in his belief that a minimum charge for a unit of alcohol would make a difference in tackling the dangerous culture of what he called ‘preloading’. Even after it became clear that the policy was likely to be dropped the Prime Minister stated that he wanted to end the sale of ‘20p cans of lager’ and other forms of cheap ’booze’.

Therefore, unlike other U turns that this government have performed (and there have been enough of them), this was something that the Prime Minister directly supported and has had to backtrack on. No wonder Ed Miliband was able to have his strongest performance at PMQs last week, bringing cheers of laughter throughout the house when asking the Prime Minister just what exactly he could ‘organise in a brewery’. Other members of the cabinet, with the most prominent being potential leadership challenger Theresa May, have clearly forced Cameron’s hand and this suggests a new weakness in his leadership.

It might be said that in a parliamentary democracy the prime minister is only the first among equals and it good that he is occasionally overruled by his cabinet. But the British people are now more used to the presidential style of Thatcher and Blair, so expect their Prime Minister to be the dominant member of the government.

It is only now that Cameron’s leadership skills are coming under question. While the government has been unpopular for a while, he has always been well respected as a leader. Even now, Lord Ashcroft’s poll gave him a lead of 16 percentage points over Ed Miliband in terms of being seen as prime ministerial. But while before it was other Cabinet members who were forced to reverse their policies, it is now the Prime Minister himself. After the Eastleigh by election the Tory press have been talking up other leadership challengers. People may well vote for a Prime Minister that they do not like, but when a Prime Minister’s competence and leadership ability is put under question then he or she is likely to be in real trouble.

The minimum alcohol pricing on its own is unlikely to have much effect on the next election. The public were pretty undecided about its merits anyway. But there is starting to be a trickle of doubt about Cameron’s ability to lead his own party and be the strong leader that everyone expected him to be. If that trickle were to become a torrent then it may be that one of the few advantages the Tories have over Labour at the next election could be wiped out. It may be that we look back at this U turn, not as having brought down the Conservatives, but certainly as having been the start of that process.

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