Ambush could sink Blair's smoking compromise

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Indy Politics

Senior Labour MPs are planning an ambush to inflict an embarrassing defeat on Tony Blair's compromise plans for a partial ban on smoking in pubs.

The Labour chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Health, Kevin Barron, an outspoken critic of the Government's plans, has told friends he is considering tabling an amendment to the Health Bill early in the new year to impose a total ban on smoking in pubs.

Mr Barron is keen to avoid another humiliating defeat for Mr Blair, and has privately told colleagues his priority is obtaining a "free vote" - rather than being forced to vote along party lines by the Government. But he has made clear he will consider putting his name to the key amendment which could defeat the Government when the Bill goes through its final stages in the Commons in January.

One senior Labour MP said: "It will be known as the health committee amendment. That will carry enormous weight and authority. It is more likely that the Government will be defeated now."

Under the Government proposal, pubs that serve food will be exempt from a ban on smoking. Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, warned that it would be "unworkable" as pubs would stop serving food to avoid the ban.

But with the cabinet committee in disarray, John Reid, the Defence Secretary, a former 60-a-day smoker, persuaded ministers to stick to the manifesto policy for a partial ban.

The health committee report branded the plan "unfair, unjust, unworkable and illogical - the worst possible solution. Workers most exposed to second-hand smoke will not be protected. It defies logic."

Mr Barron has written to Labour MPs disputing a ruling by the Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, that a free vote cannot be given because a partial smoking ban was in Labour's election manifesto.

Other Labour MPs ready to table the amendment to ban smoking in pubs include Andrew Mackinlay, who tabled a Commons motion signed by more than 90 MPs, including around 60 Labour MPs, in support of a total ban.

Mr Mackinlay said: "There is time for the Government to rethink its position or it will be defeated. The Irish Republic has already imposed a total ban on smoking in pubs. It doesn't put staff in an invidious position. It simply works."

Some Labour MPs last night accused the Prime Minister of "arrogance" in trying to force through the proposal which has split the Cabinet. Senior backbenchers have been to see Mr Blair to urge him to allow a free vote and pointed out that Northern Ireland was adopting a total ban, along with the Scottish Parliament.

There is resentment among MPs that Mr Reid, a minister with a Scottish seat, is influencing policy in England, when Scotland has adopted a complete ban.

Mr Barron circulated to MPs a copy of a newspaper article in which he accused Mr Reid, a former health secretary, of being instrumental in ensuring the last election manifesto exempted pubs and restaurants from a total ban. He said Labour MPs should have a free vote because the manifesto had not been adopted by the traditional procedure.

"The policy which materialised in the manifesto had not gone through the rigorous procedures brought in in the eighties to ensure that we were all in agreement," Barron said.

Ms Hewitt, who favours a total ban, is having to drive through a policy she publicly does not support. Fellow ministers said they believe the Government will be defeated and are urging the Prime Minister to overrule the Chief Whip and order a free vote to avoid further embarrassment and damage to his authority.

The Tory leader David Cameron has told Tory MPs they will have a free vote. Crispin Blunt, the Tory whip on the Health Bill, said: "We will have a free vote but I will vote for a ban... so that people know they cannot go into a pub and smoke.

"The Government has made a complete mess of this bill."