James Heale James Heale

Sunak’s smoking ‘legacy’ goes up in flames 

Photo by Henry Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images

When Rishi Sunak announced his decision to call a July election, he used his rain-soaked speech to list his apparent achievements in office. This included his plans for a ‘smoke-free generation’:

We set out a comprehensive plan to reform our welfare system to make it fair to those who pay for it as well as those who need it. Immigration is finally coming down and we will stop the boats with our Rwanda partnership. We will ensure that the next generation grows up smoke free. I hope that my work since I became Prime Minister shows that we have a plan and are prepared to take the bold action necessary for our country to flourish.

Only did Sunak speak a little too soon? Ahead of the dissolution of parliament next Thursday, MPs are in a race against time to pass outstanding pieces of legislation into law. This traditional pre-election exercise is known as the ‘wash-up’, with ministers usually relying on the cooperation of the Opposition to secure approval for new laws. Bills are often either dropped or shortened to ensure they are approved in some form. 

But while compensation for those affected by the infected-blood scandal and help for the Post Office scandal victims are expected to be included – Sunak’s smoking ban is missing. Announced to great fanfare at the Conservative Party conference last autumn, this policy would outlaw the sale of tobacco products to anyone born after 2008. With polling showing that a big majority of voters backed the ban, Downing Street hoped that it would steal Labour’s clothes and prove that after 14 years in government, the Tories still had a mission for the future. Apparently not.

It means that it will now have to be a Tory manifesto pledge instead, given that parliamentary business-managers have clearly decided it is too controversial to pass by the election. While most of the wash up is uncontroversial, the decision to leave out Sunak’s supposedly signature smoking ban is odd. Labour overwhelmingly backs it – and has even promised to bring it back if they win. This then begs the question: can the Tories call it their policy any more?

The fact that it is a Labour government which could be the one to make this policy a reality is news that will not upset too many Tory MPs. After all, it was always more unpopular with his own side. Some 57 Conservative MPs voted to oppose the Bill at its Second Reading last month, including Kemi Badenoch and Liz Truss. One rebel even welcomed news of the election as a way to kill off the ban.

The danger for Sunak is that, deprived of one of his two big conference announcements, he enters the campaign after 18 months in government with a rather paltry legislative record to stand on. At a time when voters and even some Tory MPs are wondering what the party stands for, the failure to pass a smoking bill by polling day will be attacked by opponents as a sign that this government has run out of steam.