Liz Truss turns on Rishi Sunak's flagship smoking ban as Tories revolt ahead of key vote

16 April 2024, 18:14 | Updated: 16 April 2024, 19:57

Rishi Sunak is facing a rebellion over his proposed smoking ban
Rishi Sunak is facing a rebellion over his proposed smoking ban. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou and Christian Oliver

Former prime minister Liz Truss has called the government's flagship smoking ban a 'virtue-signalling piece of legislation' as MPs prepare to vote on the bill this evening.

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Ms Truss, who was ousted as prime minister after just 49 days, said the government's proposed smoking ban for youngsters is the result of a "technocratic establishment" that is aiming to "limit people's freedom".

She called the Tobacco and Vapes Bill a "virtue-signalling piece of legislation".

The bill will make it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone born after January 1 2009, which covers children who are currently 15 or younger.

The legal age to buy tobacco would then increase each year in a bid to end smoking.

It would not ban smoking outright as anyone who can legally buy tobacco now will be able to continue to do so if the bill becomes law.

But speaking during the bill's second reading, Ms Truss said: "The reason I am speaking today is I am very concerned that this policy being put forward is emblematic of a technocratic establishment in this country that wants to limit people's freedom, and I think that is a problem."

She added: "The problem is the instinct of this establishment, which is reflected by a cross-party consensus today in today's chamber, is to believe that they, that the Government are better at making decisions for people than people themselves and I absolutely agree that that is true for the under-18s.

"It is very important that until people have decision-making capability while they are growing up, that we protect them. But I think the whole idea that we can protect adults from themselves is hugely problematic and it effectively infantilises people, and that is what has been going on.

"And what we're seeing, is we're seeing not just on tobacco but also on sugar, also on alcohol, also on meat, a group of people who want to push an agenda which is about limiting people's personal freedom, and I think that is fundamentally wrong."

Read more: Minister who reveals she started smoking at 12 says she's not interested in freedom argument against ban

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It comes after Home Office minister Laura Farris revealed to LBC that she started smoking at the age of 12 and backed the plan.

"I think this is a very, very sensible policy and I'm not particularly interested in arguments about freedom on this one," Ms Farris told LBC.

The minister said: "It took me years and years and years to quit. It's one of my biggest regrets, actually.

"I've got two young kids now and the fact that they will never be able to walk into a shop and buy a packet of cigarettes is something I welcome.

"I have never met a single smoker who's glad they did it, wishes that their children do it, can identify a single health benefit or any other life benefit.

"It gets you hooked. It's a horrible habit. And even when you're doing it, you know that you're causing yourself irreparable harm. And it's incredibly difficult to get off."

But the bill has face criticism from several MPs, with Boris Johnson calling it “absolutely nuts”.

Kemi Badenoch became the first cabinet minister to say she would vote against the ban on Tuesday evening.

She said in a series of posts on X: "We should not treat legally competent adults differently in this way, where people born a day apart will have permanently different rights.

"Among other reasons it will create difficulties with enforcement. This burden will fall not on the state but on private businesses.

"Smoking rates are already declining significantly in the UK and I think there is more we can do to stop children taking up the habit.

"However, I do not support the approach this bill is taking and so will be voting against it."

Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan also came out against the ban.

She said: "This is just stage one of the legislation and I hope that at the next stage we can make amendments which will make it law which will be more likely to actually deter young smokers without removing freedom of choice for adults.

"My granny smoked all her life, the rest of us have always been opposed to it as a result. But her ability to decide for herself is one which I would not want to remove."

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick tweeted: "I believe in personal freedom. Let's educate more and ban less.

"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."

Earlier in the day, Liz Truss warned her Tory colleagues, that there were enough "finger-wagging, nannying control freaks" on the opposition benches willing to support the proposals.

She called on the party to instead "stand by our principles and our ideals".

Ms Truss said: "The only other country in the world where such a bill was brought forward was New Zealand under a very left-wing prime minister and that bill has now been reversed under the new Conservative government in New Zealand.

"And I have a message for my colleagues on this side of the House. If people want to vote for finger-wagging, nannying control freaks, there are plenty of them to choose from on the benches opposite, and that's the way they will vote.

"And if people want to have control over their lives, if they want to have freedom, that is why they vote Conservative and we have to stand by our principles and our ideals."

Downing Street has pushed back against Ms Truss's attack on "control freaks" supporting the ban.

A No10 spokeswoman said: "I think the Prime Minister would disagree with that.

"I think, as he set out right when he first announced this, this is an important change which will save thousands of lives and billions of pounds for the NHS. And the Prime Minister thinks that that is an important thing to do."

Asked why Mr Sunak believes the move is not unconservative, the spokeswoman said: "This has always been a free vote and that's because he respects that people's attitudes to smoking is a matter of conscience - and that's why the approach that we're taking with this legislation has been in line with previous interventions."