Sarah Wollaston is angry. Again. This time it’s about plain packaging on cigarettes. She told the World at One that the decision to stall introducing plain packaging was ‘pandering to election strategists’ and that this was a ‘very sad day for public health’. You can listen to the full interview below:-
Now, this is obviously deeply annoying for the Tory leadership as it hardly helps them tackle the narrative that they’re always caving into their friends in big business. Even more annoying, perhaps, for Anna Soubry, who unlike Wollaston had to back the decision in the Commons this morning even though she personally supports plain packaging. In response to an urgent question from Diane Abbott, Soubry said:
‘One one country, Australia, has adopted the policy, which it introduced on 1 December last year. New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland have announced they intend to follow suit. We intend to wait, so we can benefit from the experience of countries such as Australia that have introduced standardised packaging. In the meantime, I want to promote wider public debate about whether we should introduce standardised packaging in this country, including in this House as well as in the media.’
Poor Soubry found herself being ridiculed by Abbott, who said ‘you would have to have a heart of stone not to feel sorry for the honourable lady, who has been forced to be the face of this humiliating policy U-turn’.
Soubry surrendered the right to say what she really thinks about a government decision when she accepted the public health job (although she didn’t seem that chuffed with the job offer, anyway). But is Wollaston right to speak out so forcefully against her party leadership? That depends on whether you think it is good for backbenchers to be so tribal that they never hold the executive to account. It is their job as members of the legislature to make life uncomfortable for the government on behalf of their constituents, and parliament works much better when MPs do this, rather than just doing as the whips tell them. Some of the best moments of this parliament have come when MPs have said what they think about the way their leadership is behaving (my personal favourite was the speech delivered by Charles Walker on the day the government rushed out its legislative response to Leveson – it is well worth a read if you missed it). Perhaps it would make parliament more appealing to impressive potential parliamentary candidates, too, if we saw more backbenchers doing their proper job, and if parties let them do it.