The government has revealed its U-turn on minimum alcohol pricing was sparked by a “compelling” case the policy could punish hard-up responsible drinkers.

Home office minister Jeremy Browne admitted “very strong arguments” had been raised that the government’s proposals could hit the public - including pensioners - in the pocket, most of whom were not problem drinkers.

“There are compelling points made over the affordability of alcohol for people on low incomes,” Browne told an emergency House of Commons debate on the issue, as Labour demanded an explanation for the change in direction.

He admitted there were “tensions” in the government, particularly over the blanket impact of a hike in prices.

“If you had an elderly person who might buy one bottle of wine a week, there is a strong argument against financially penalising them by introducing minimum pricing.”

With minimum pricing said to be dead in the water, the industry is now bracing itself for alternative measures, with speculation next week’s Budget could include measures over and above the beer escalator increase.

Prime minister David Cameron said yesterday he was determined to tackle the problem of 20p cans of lager being sold in supermarkets.

Alternative plans include a formal ban on below-cost selling, which would be the preferred measure of the drinks industry, or a crackdown on high-strength beers and ciders.

But the government may also look at further clampdowns on marketing and a move to Scottish-style restrictions in stores, including segregation of alcohol into one area of the shop.

Former health minister Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, urged the chancellor to avoid putative attacks on the cider industry which he warned could “devastate businesses in the west country”.

But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the prime minister’s authority was “in tatters” after the climbdown and also attacked home secretary Theresa May for not turning up to the debate, even though she is the minister responsible.