Rows of bottle on supermarket shelfThe minimum pricing plan is aimed at heavily-discounted drinks sold in shops and supermarkets

Labour has accused the government of “weak leadership” after it emerged plans for minimum pricing of alcohol in England and Wales may be dropped.

Conservative ministers are understood to be split over a proposed 45p per unit price to tackle problem drinking.

Tory former GP Sarah Wollaston said: “To ditch this evidence-based measure would be a real tragedy.” Labour said it would be a “humiliating climb-down”.

The Home Office said it was considering responses to its 10-week consultation.

Prime Minister David Cameron supports a minimum unit price, which supporters argue would help reduce the levels of ill-health and crime related to alcohol and prevent practices like “pre-loading” with drink before nights out.

‘What’s changed?’

However, the BBC understands there is now significant pressure within the government for the plan to be dropped, amid opposition from cabinet ministers including Home Secretary Theresa May, Education Secretary Michael Gove and Commons leader Andrew Lansley.

Minimum pricing had always seemed an odd fit. In opposition, neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems had been that vocal in calling for it.

In fact, Andrew Lansley, who was the health secretary for the first two years of this government, was opposed to it.

However, slowly but surely, it began to gather momentum. First, a 40p threshold was put forward and then – at the end of last year – 45p was proposed and consulted on.

That would have been ground-breaking. Along with Scotland, England and Wales looked set to become one of a very select band of countries to try to tackle problem drinking in this way.

Research has suggested a 45p minimum could reduce drinking by 4.3%, potentially saving 2,000 lives within a decade. This was why the idea had such strong backing from the medical profession.

But using price is a crude tool. As well as hitting problem drinkers, it would also influence those who consume alcohol in moderation. Dropping the plan may win ministers votes, but it won’t make them popular with doctors.

Labour’s shadow Home Office minister Diana Johnson said: “Theresa May and David Cameron have announced a minimum alcohol price twice in the last 12 months.

“Now we hear reports the home secretary has changed her mind on her own policy and wants to U-turn. This is weak leadership and weak government.”

She added: “The home secretary and the prime minister said this measure would cut crime and prevent alcohol abuse – what’s changed?”

The Home Office said it was considering all representations to its consultation on the measure, which closed on 6 February, and would report back in due course.

If a 45p unit price were to be introduced, a can of strong lager could not be sold for less than £1.56 or a bottle of wine for less than £4.22.

The department is also considering banning multi-buy promotions, such as two-for-the-price-of-one.

Health campaigners have pushed for the government to go further, calling for a 50p minimum price for a unit of alcohol.

“The lesson of history is very clear that when alcohol is too cheap, people die,” said Dr Wollaston.

Fellow Conservative MP Tracey Crouch tweeted: “I really hope rumours of U-turn on minimum unit pricing for alcohol are not true. We must tackle problem of easily accessible cheap alcohol.”

Benefits questioned

But the Wine and Spirit Trade Association said recent figures showed alcohol consumption was falling and there was little evidence showing that a minimum price would reduce problem drinking.

“Consumers will welcome the report that the prime minister is reconsidering plans to hike up the cost of alcohol,” said the body’s chief executive Miles Beale.

“Minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers and treat everyone who is looking for value in their shopping as a binge-drinker.”

Devolution has meant different strategies have been developing to tackle rising rates of problem drinking across the UK.

In addition to the 45p consultation in England and Wales, in Scotland a 50p price is set to be introduced.

Northern Ireland is yet to put forward a specific proposal, although it is reviewing pricing.

Alcohol priced at 45p per unit

Alcohol pricing: Government accused of weak leadership – BBC News
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