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Downing Street Braced For Smoking Ban Snub From Dozens Of Tory MPs

Under Sunak's plans, the smoking age will be raised by one year every year (Alamy)

3 min read

Government is braced for potentially dozens of Conservative MPs to refuse to back Rishi Sunak's smoking ban when the legislation is put to a House of Commons for the first time on Tuesday.

Under the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, which will undergo its second reading tomorrow, nobody aged 15 or younger will be able to legally buy cigarettes at any point in their lives. Ministers will do this by raising the legal age one year every year until it is phased out altogether, subject to parliamentary approval. 

Sunak announced the move at last year's Conservative party conference in Manchester. It is seen as an issue that the Prime Minister cares deeply about and regards as part of his legacy.

"This is Rishi's thing. He feels very strongly about this," said one former secretary of state.

On Monday, Sunak's official spokesperson issued a strongly-worded defence of the legislation, telling reporters: "We would encourage MPs to recognise the enormous benefits to the health and wealth of the nation as a result of this bill.

"The PM has made it  clear that to build a better future for our children, we need to tackle the single biggest, entirely preventable cause of ill health, disability and death, which is smoking."

The plan is supported by Keir Starmer's Labour and other opposition parties, meaning it is almost certain to receive House of Commons backing tomorrow.

However, it is opposed by a number of Conservative MPs in the libertarian wing of the parliamentary party, who argue that it is not for the state to dictate individual lifestyle choices to this extent.

PoliticsHome understands that No 10 and the Whips are braced for a significant number of Tory backbenchers to express their disapproval on Tuesday. One former Cabinet minister predicted several dozen Conservative MPs will abstain on the vote, with a smaller number going as far as voting against the legislation.

Sunak has decided to make the issue a free vote, meaning Whips will not instruct Tory MPs how to vote. As a result, Conservative MPs who do not vote with the Government tomorrow, including senior ministers, will not face disciplinary action.

One MP who strongly opposes the legislation said they expect most Tories who dislike it to abstain, rather than vote against, as "people won't want to vote against a pro-health move". 

That said, this Conservative MP and other Tories with objections, hope to secure concessions from the government later in the legislative process when the bill reaches committee stage. Unhappy Tory MPs are in talks with like minded peers in the House of Lords about pushing for "carve outs" for certain types of tobacco, for example.

Tory peer Lord Ken Clarke, a former chancellor of the exchequer, has warned that Sunak's proposed smoking ban, while "admirable", may prove difficult to enforce.

"You will get to a stage where if you are 42 years of age, you will be able to buy them but someone aged 41 will not be allowed to,” he told The Telegraph. “Does that mean you will have to produce your birth certificate? It may prove very difficult to enforce. Future generations will have to see whether it works or not.”

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