A Conservative shadow minister has thrown into doubt the party's willingness to curb cheap alcohol sales in supermarkets.
In an exclusive interview with the Morning Advertiser, ex-licensee Mike Penning also said that a Tory Government would not automatically ban cigarette vending machines.
The Tory Party said at its conference in October that it intends to ban below-cost alcohol sales. However, Penning, a shadow health minister, said loss-leading by supermarkets is "an issue", but added, "I've not said I want to ban it. I've said I have a real concern about it".
"I'm a Conservative, at heart I'm a libertarian. I don't want to ban anything, but they [supermarkets] have a moral responsibility, and if you look at a litre bottle of branded spirit being sold for £10, the duty plus VAT on that is around £9.31.
"Somebody is taking a huge hit on selling at this price. I'm sure it's not the distillers; it's obvious who it is. And they have to stand up and understand that very often, sadly, alcohol is getting into the wrong hands. But at the same time, I don't want to spoil people's social drinking."
Last month the Government announced it wants to ban cigarette vending machines in October 2013.
Penning said he felt the ban was a "restriction on trade of a legal product" and added: "We're not going to implement it."
He promised a free vote on the issue, which didn't occur last time, if the Conservatives got into power.
Penning said technology could be used to stop children getting cigarettes from the machines. "Instead of that, it looks like the Government has destroyed between 650 and 700 jobs."
He said that many licensees felt pressurised into staying open later by other venues in their area, under the Licensing Act.
Penning plans to lobby his colleagues to revoke the legislation and to give communities more say over closing times, in line with the Conservative's approach.
Penning's family owned two Inntrepreneur leases in Essex when he was in his 20s, they were "both 1,000 barrels a year pubs" and wet-led.
Operating them was "enormously exciting", but hard work. "It's a 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, 52 weeks-of-the-year job," he said.
"I've thought hard about whether, if I left this House now, I would go back to running a pub again. I don't think my wife would put up with the hours again."
Penning sympathised with licensees today who face high overheads, business rates and pub rents. Business gain is "very minimal" at the moment not least because of increasing amounts of pre-loading, he added.
Mike Penning on...
Drinks labelling: "I don't think anybody who socially drinks really understands… the calorie and sugar content [of their drinks].
"Some form of labelling, complete with calorie content is possible, but we're quite a way away from it."
Mandatory code: "Anything that's mandatory, I'm sceptical about. I wouldn't have thought it beyond the wit of the industry to self-regulate."
Outlawing drinks promotions: "It's almost impossible to police. Social drinking is social drinking. We don't want to damage an already very frail situation with pubs and clubs."