Darling's duds of the day

21 March, 2008

Alistair Darling seems to be suffering from a form of political Tourettes - the delusion that by saying a word enough times your audience will believe it's true, like inflicting the audio equivalent of repetitive strain injury on our brains. But while the Chancellor's Budget speech was heavy on "stability" (cropping up 27 times), it's anything but for the industry. Talk to anyone in the trade and relief and reassurance are the last things you'll find.

Drawing positives from one of the worst Budgets for the trade is tough . Just as in the weeks leading to the announcement, we're still hypothesising about the final impact , based on variables that remain largely unknown. Principally, whether retailers will absorb some or all of the costs and, if they're forced to pay more, how consumers will react.

That the spectre of more tax - 2% above inflation (whatever that might be) for the next four years - is the only comfort some have been able to take speaks volumes about the precariousness of our position.

Any reference to alcohol misuse was conspicuously absent from Darling's debut Budget performance.

Instead of justifying the increases as an anti-binge-drinking measure, his rationale centred on alleviating child and pensioner poverty - emotive causes he knows the drinks industry could not possibly challenge head-on.

If the government wanted to establish in voters' minds that its taxation policy was borne out of a belief that upping duty would tackle alcohol harm, why not shout it from the rafters, if only to silence the ever-critical hacks at the Daily Wail?

Darling's unwillingness to do so can be interpreted in one of two ways, both of which make potentially bleak reading for the trade.

Either the government has pre-empted the findings of its own independent review into whether a link exists between alcohol price, promotion and harm (due this summer) by ruling, uninformed, that there is. A damaging indictment that sends a clear message about the importance government places on putting rhetoric before reason.

Or, by keeping this argument up its sleeve, it is biding its time, knowing that imposing yet more tax rises on the trade and consumers could be a real possibility.

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