Anna Soubry

Anna Soubry

After years of wearisome clamouring for more and more state manipulation of the nation’s eating habits, a health minister has unequivocally rejected dietary micro-management and reaffirmed the importance of individual responsibility (The Grocer, 20 July). Good for you, Anna.

Meanwhile there were red faces at Sheffield University whose team of modellers had once forecast with incontrovertible precision the number of alcohol-related deaths that would be avoided if minimum unit pricing were imposed.

When their model first churned out these figures, to be greeted with rapturous enthusiasm by ministers north of the border and nanny state supporters everywhere, a few of us pointed out the perils of basing policy on such a slender and potentially vulnerable foundation. This belated climb-down has clearly vindicated the government’s previous decision to kick minimum pricing into the long grass, albeit for different reasons.

These checks to the ongoing growth of state control over our lives may well turn out to be more than a just a temporary blip.

” Departments will have to shed both functions and staff”

No, I’m not expecting politicians of any stripe to lose their innate tendency to meddle - what else would they and the bureaucrats do? But there is an increasing probability that a far more drastic reduction than anything seen so far in the size and scope of government will be forced on the political establishment simply by its lack of money.

The Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent forecast that the UK will have to find up to £19bn a year in either tax rises or spending cuts from 2018 onwards merely to get our debt level back to its 1990s average is our “fire bell in the night”.

Since there are clear political and economic limits to tax increases, the main weight of debt reduction is likely to fall on public spending. As this will almost certainly be spread unequally across Whitehall, some departments will have to shed both functions and staff on an unprecedented scale.

The prime targets may well include departments whose policies and regulatory burdens have long impinged on the grocery sector. Anna Soubry’s approach may well be the future.

Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant