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MPs’ vote on gradual smoking ban set to expose Tory splits over key Sunak policy – UK politics live

Liz Truss blames ‘unelected’ health department officials for smoking ban, in apparent jibe at Chris Whitty

Liz Truss has blamed “unelected individuals” in the Department of Health and Social Care for the government’s planned smoking ban, in apparent attack on civil servants such as the chief medical officer for England, Sir Chris Whitty. Ben Quinn has the story here.

Good morning. When David Cameron looks back on his premiership, one of the things he did that is most likely to be regarded as a positive achievement – now and in the future – was passing equal marriage legislation. But it only went through with opposition votes, because more than half of Conservative MPs opposed it. Today Rishi Sunak is asking MPs to vote for another piece of legislation which, potentially, could have a transformative effect on life in Britain. And, like Cameron, he is legislating against the grain of opinion in his party.

As Andrew Gregory and Ben Quinn report in our preview story, Prof Sir Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, has been wheeled out to make the case for the tobacco and vapes bill, which would prevent anyone who is turning 15 this year, or younger, from ever being able to legally buy tobacco products and which is getting its second reading today. Sunak’s government is only responsible for health policy in England, but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are set to adopt the legislation too.

Labour is backing the bill, and it seems certain to pass.

But Sunak has offered Tories a free vote, on the grounds that this should be a “conscience issue” for his MPs, and dozens of Conservatives are expected to abstain or vote against. Technically this won’t count as a rebellion, because they won’t be defying the whip. But, to Sunak, it may feel like a revolt.

In his Daily Mail column last week Boris Johnson said the policy was insane. He wrote:

When the party of Winston Churchill wants to ban cigars, donnez-moi un break, as they say in Quebec – it’s just mad.

Another former PM, Liz Truss, told the BBC yesterday:

We’re a free country. We shouldn’t be telling people not to smoke and I worry about where it will lead.

And on the Today programme this morning Sir Simon Clarke, levelling up secretary in Truss’s short-lived cabinet, took the same line. He said:

There are good ways to tackle a problem like this and then there are bad ways, and I think that an outright ban risks being counterproductive, I think it actually risks making smoking cooler, it certainly risks creating a black market, and it also risks creating a unmanageable challenge for the authorities.

According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, more than 50 Conservative MPs are “preparing” to vote against the bill. And the Times says two or three cabinet ministers may refuse to support Sunak. In their story Chris Smyth and Steven Swinford write:

Two or three cabinet ministers are said to have privately signalled scepticism over the bill, with [Kemi] Badenoch among those unconvinced. She is yet to decide how to vote but has previously spoken of her discomfort with bans and wrote in The Times during her 2022 leadership campaign: “Too often people feel that whoever is elected, the answer is more government. By promising too much and trying to solve every problem, politicians don’t reassure and inspire, they disappoint and drive disillusion.”

Steve Barclay, the environment secretary who was health secretary when Sunak announced his smoking policy, is also said to have misgivings about the wisdom of a ban. He will not vote against the policy which he is on record as praising, but may opt to abstain, citing a busy diary. Alister Jack, the Scotland secretary, is not expected to oppose the ban but is considering whether to abstain.

Does it matter if a sizeable number of Tory MPs fail to support their leader on this? In legislative terms, probably not very much. But Sunak will soon be fighting an election, and this shows that on at least one key issue (and one with which he is strongly identified personally – no one else in government is pushing this), he is not fundamentally aligned with the instincts of many people in his party. That helps to explain why Tory members seem to be losing faith in him.

Here is the agenda for the day.

8.45am: Rishi Sunak chairs a political cabinet, before the regular weekly cabinet meeting.

10am: Former Post Office executives David Miller and David Mills give evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry.

10.15am: Nigel Farage, the Reform UK honorary president, speaks at the National Conservatism conference in Brussels. Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, is speaking at 12.45pm and Miriam Cates, the co-chair of the New Conservatives group of Tory MPs, is speaking at 2.45pm.

11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.

11.30am: Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s first minister, speaks to the Scottish TUC conference in Dundee.

After 12.45pm: MPs begin the debate on the second reading of the tobacco and vapes bill. The vote will be at 7pm.

3.10pm: David Cameron, the foreign secretary, takes questions in the House of Lords.

After 3.50pm: Peers debate amendments to the safety of Rwanda (asylum and immigration) bill.

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