Cigarette display
Cigarette display (Reuters)

David Cameron has stepped up his drive to shut down potentially negative election policies by executing another U turn, this time over the packaging of cigarettes.

Four months ago the government effectively buried proposals to ban any colourful labelling on cigarette packages and immediately faced Labour claims that the prime minister was being influenced by his Australian elections adviser, Lynton Crosby, who has worked for tobacco firms.

But now the government has made the surprise announcement that there will be an independent review of cigarette packaging and the effect it might have on encouraging young people to take up smoking.

Health minister Jane Ellison said the aim was to "examine the emerging evidence" on such a policy, specifically from Australia where a ban on labelling has been in effect since 2011. The study will report in March 2014.

And the signals are that the government is now expected to accept that uniform packaging, either plain or with graphic health related images, could be imposed on tobacco companies.

Ellison declared the move was to take the politics out of the issue, a remark immediately seized on to claim what she really meant was to neutralise a potentially damaging and divisive issue for the government.

It was pointed out that there was a cross-party move in the House of Lords to amend legislation currently before parliament in a way which would give ministers the power to impose plain labelling.

The government had executed its U turn to avoid an embarrassing defeat, Labour claimed.

Ellison also suggested ministers had recognised the issue was becoming a potential source of party division in the election campaign saying: "I don't blame parliament for feeling strongly about this issue, it's one of the most important public health issues we face in this country."

The change of heart comes just days after ministers attempted to shut down another potentially damaging election issue buy imposing a cap on payday loans.

Ed Miliband had made the "Wonga economy" one of his election themes and the government decision was seen as a way of neutralising it.

What all the manoeuvring shows is that government policy is increasingly being driven by electoral considerations and the desire to clear the decks of anything that might prove difficult or distracting in the campaign.