Rishi Sunak’s ban on youngsters smoking clears first Commons hurdle

Rishi Sunak’s proposal to ban young people from ever being able to legally smoke tobacco has cleared its first Commons hurdle, despite a swathe of Conservative MPs objecting to it in a blow to his authority.

MPs voted 383 to 67, majority 316, to give the Tobacco and Vapes Bill a second reading.

The legislation, seen by the Prime Minister as a key part of his long-term legacy, would make it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone born after January 1 2009, with the aim of creating a “smoke-free” generation.

Conservative MPs were given a free vote on the Bill, meaning those who voted against the Government’s position will not face punishment.

This allowed serving ministers, including Business Secretary and future Tory leadership hopeful Kemi Badenoch, to publicly reveal they would vote to reject the Bill.

The dissent among high-profile Tories highlights discontent with Mr Sunak’s leadership and posturing as his party languishes in the polls ahead of the upcoming general election.

“The principle of equality under the law is a fundamental one. It underpins many of my personal beliefs,” Ms Badenoch wrote on X, formerly Twitter, ahead of the vote.

She added: “We should not treat legally competent adults differently in this way, where people born a day apart will have permanently different rights.”

Another potential contender to run for the Tory leadership, former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, also came out against the policy.

Cabinet meeting
Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch leaving Downing Street (Yui Mok/PA)

“I also believe in the principle of equality under the law. A phased ban of smoking would be an affront to that. I will therefore vote against the Tobacco and Vapes Bill.”

They were joined by Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who said she hoped MPs could “make amendments which will make it law which will be more likely to actually deter young smokers without removing freedom of choice for adults”.

The intervention by serving ministers comes after several senior Tories, including former prime minister Liz Truss, said they would not back the Bill due to concerns about freedom of personal choice.

In the Commons, Ms Truss claimed the ban is the result of a “technocratic establishment” aiming to “limit people’s freedom”, and described the Bill as a “virtue-signalling piece of legislation”.

In a warning to Tory colleagues, Ms Truss said she was “disappointed” that a Conservative Government was bringing forward a smoking ban.

She claimed there were enough “finger-wagging, nannying control freaks” on the opposition benches willing to support the proposals, urging Conservatives to “stand by our principles and our ideals”.

He said: “What next? A ban on alcohol? A ban on takeaways? I would declare an interest in both of those. Both of these are bad for us when they are not done responsibly. But we are adults, these are our choices, these are not the state’s choice.”

The division list showed 57 Conservative MPs voted against giving the Tobacco and Vapes Bill a second reading, while 178 voted to support it.

Among those voting against were Ms Badenoch, Mr Jenrick, Ms Truss, Mr Clarke-Smith, former home secretary Suella Braverman and former housing secretary Sir Simon Clarke.

Several serving ministers also voted against, including Cabinet Office minister Alex Burghart, Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, culture minister Julia Lopez and communities minister Lee Rowley.

Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the House of Commons, was among 106 Tory MPs listed as having “no vote recorded”.

Not all those listed in this way will have abstained, as some will have received permission to miss the vote.

However, newspapers had reported Ms Mordaunt, another Conservative leadership hopeful, was among those wavering in her support for the Bill.

Other Conservative former ministers supported the plans, with ex-health secretary Sir Sajid Javid criticising colleagues for “choosing to stand up for big tobacco against the interest of their constituents”.

Steve Brine, Conservative chairman of the Health Affairs Committee, suggested small-state Tories should back the measures to eliminate costs for the taxpayer.

“If you are a Conservative and a smaller state is your thing… you should be right behind a healthier society, one that needs the state less, one that relies on the state less, one that costs the state less,” he said.

Cabinet meeting
Health Secretary Victoria Atkins leaving Downing Street (Yui Mok/PA)

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said she understood colleagues’ concerns about freedom of choice, and conceded Conservatives were “not in the habit of banning things”, but warned the Commons there was “no liberty in addiction”.

“Nicotine robs people of their freedom to choose. The vast majority of smokers start when they are young, and three-quarters say that if they could turn back the clock they would not have started,” she added.

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