“Are we the party of small business or the party of small business regulation?” Nick de Bois MP asked public health minister Jane Ellison during the plain packaging debate last week.
For a back-bench Tory to ask this less than two months from the general election is extraordinary, but two decisions made by the Conservative-led coalition last week made it pertinent.
On Wednesday, MPs voted by a margin of 3-1 to introduce plain tobacco packaging to the UK in May 2016. This happened in spite of several cabinet members refusing to back the law, the department of health estimating it will cost every retailer £550k in lost sales and existing security features being banned from plain packs.
Then on Thursday, it was announced retailers caught selling alcohol, lottery tickets, fireworks or solvents to children could now face an unlimited fine after the £5,000 cap was removed.
Whitehall policymakers no doubt thought that responsible retailers with water-tight processes need not worry, but this is almost beside the point.
Hitting retailers with a £27bn plain packs penalty and then threatening them with unlimited fines for falling foul of the law does not feel like the policy of a party looking out for small business.
[pull_quote_right]Counting on retailers’ votes based on a reputation of being the party of small businesses could prove to be a costly mistake[/pull_quote_right]
The timing of Monday’s announcement of a “radical” business rates review – after retailers have spent a decade calling for it – without any detail or firm commitments feels like little more than a sop.
Counting on retailers’ votes based on a reputation of being the party of small business could prove to be a costly mistake.
With weeks to go until the manifestos are unveiled, the Conservative party has plenty of work to do to win RN readers’ votes.