Smoking ban will be difficult to enforce, Lord Clarke warns Sunak

Smoker by Big Ben
MPs will vote this week on the smoking legislation - Carl Court/Getty Images

Former health secretary Lord Clarke has warned Rishi Sunak that his flagship smoking ban could be difficult to enforce.

Speaking on the eve of this week’s crunch vote on the legislation in the Commons, the former chancellor and home secretary said he was not going to vote against the legislation and the motives to end smoking were “admirable”.

But he forecast there could be difficulties as the ban on buying cigarettes moved up the generations. “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,” Lord Clarke 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.”

Under the proposed ban, someone aged 15 now who was born on or after Jan 1 2009 will never legally be allowed to buy tobacco.

Ken Clarke
Lord Clarke believes the motives for ending smoking are 'admirable' - Paul Gilham/Getty Images

It would effectively raise the legal age for buying cigarettes in England by one year every year until it applies to the whole population. Disposable vapes would also be banned outright, with reusable ones limited to four flavours.

Tory MPs are being given a free vote and at least three cabinet ministers are considering voting against it, amid concerns that it is an “unconservative” measure that denies free choice to consumers.

A source close to Suella Braverman, who was sacked as home secretary by Mr Sunak in November 2023, told The Telegraph on Thursday she was “not a fan” of the proposals.

Liz Truss, the former prime minister, has called the move “profoundly unconservative” and an example of the “nanny state” in action.

Boris Johnson has described the plan as “absolutely nuts”, adding: “When the party of Winston Churchill wants to ban cigars, donnez-moi un break, as they say in Quebec. It’s just mad.”

Measure expected to pass

Although dozens of Tory MPs are understood to have concerns about the smoking ban, rebels are split about whether to oppose the Bill outright or attempt to amend it. There will not be the opportunity for changes until it moves to its report stage following Tuesday’s vote.

The measure is expected to pass as it is backed by Labour. Because there is a free vote, the usual collective responsibility that binds ministers does not apply. As a result, both cabinet members and ordinary Tory MPs can vote against Mr Sunak’s plan without facing any disciplinary action.

One backbencher estimated that around 100 colleagues could defy the Prime Minister, which would make it the biggest revolt of his premiership – albeit on a free vote.

The Government’s working majority is now 51, meaning only 26 Tories would have to vote against the plans to leave Mr Sunak reliant on Labour votes. To force a defeat, at least 274 Tories would need to oppose the policy, subject to how other parties voted.

Downing Street is sure to argue that any minister who opts not to vote with the Prime Minister is within their rights to take a different view. However, a lack of support at a senior level would raise questions about the degree of confidence they have in Mr Sunak’s judgment.