Minimum pricing - will it ever see the light of day?

Minimum pricing - will it ever see the light of day?

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has a drink problem. He remains desperate to be seen to be tackling the UK's perceived problems with alcohol. But will he ever get there? 

After floating a minimum price of GBP0.40 in March, yesterday the Government announced it will consult on a GBP0.45 (US$0.72)per unit floor price. There now follows a ten-week consultation period.

Cameron must be hoping the idea will stick after the coalition's attempts with a ban on below-cost selling, announced last year, were exposed as a sham. Interestingly, at the time, parts of the UK media labelled the ban on sales below duty plus VAT as a “minimum price”. Job done, the Government must have thought. Until the pesky free press did some digging.

So, now another attempt. Initially, things looked good for the coalition when The Times ran a front-page story yesterday, headlined “Last orders: Time called on cheap booze” (Incidentally an almost identical headline the Daily Mail ran when minimum pricing was first announced in March). 

Unfortunately for Cameron, the wheels have already come off and, of course, it's all Europe's fault. A European Commission opinion has surfaced warning both the Scottish and Westminster administrations against a minimum price. The story was run by a string of national newspapers. 

I understand that Government officials were desperate to keep the EC's opinion's out of circulation for as long as possible. This tallies with what happened in Edinburgh's Court of Session last month when the UK Government's QC asked a judge to stop the EC's opinion being revealed in open court.

All along, the Scotch Whisky Association and the Wine & Spirit Trade Association have been warning about the legality of minimum pricing. Diageo and SABMiller have also not been shy about wading in too. Clearly, big businesses with sizeable profits and shareholders to think of will always attract cynicism. But, in this instance, the firms and trade groups could be proved right.

But one thing still nags. Government ministers, including Damian Green and Oliver Letwin, insist that minimum pricing is legal. Either, they know something others don't, or, they are being badly misled by their lawyers.

Or, perhaps there is another explanation? When quizzed on television yesterday about when a minimum price might become law, Green fudged and was unable to give an answer. 

Politics is about perception. If, in a couple of years, minimum pricing is rejected as legally unsound, the Government will be able to turn around and say “well, we tried”.

By that time, with UK alcohol consumption levels continuing to drop, hopefully we, and Mr Cameron, can all forget about the problem. At least for another generation.