Now Blair faces rebellion from MPs over smoking

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Indy Politics

Anti-smoking MPs will table amendments calling for a ban in all pubs, and ministers have been warned they face possible defeat in the Commons and the Lords. Mr Blair opposes a total ban and, after suffering his first Commons defeat on the Terrorism Bill on Wednesday, the looming rebellion could be seen as another sign that he is losing his authority.

Some 37 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion demanding "a complete and total ban on smoking in pubs, restaurants and public buildings". Several contacted by The Independent said they would defy a three-line whip by voting for such a move.

With crunch votes on Mr Blair's school and NHS reforms put off until early next year, the Health Bill could provoke the next major rebellion by Labour backbenchers. Although Blair allies say smoking is not a manifesto pledge - unlike education, health or welfare - the planned rebellion could further damage the Prime Minister.

After an embarrassing cabinet row, Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health, who proposed "smoking rooms" in pubs, was forced to back down after protests by her predecessor John Reid, now the Defence Secretary.

The Health Bill would prohibit smoking in pubs that serve food but allow it in other pubs and private clubs such as working men's clubs. It is to have its second reading on 30 November and, during the committee stage that will follow, Labour MPs will try to turn the partial ban into a total one. They will be supported by some Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs, whose party leaders are expected to allow a free vote.

A government source admitted: "There is a very real prospect of smoking being banned in all pubs. Ministers have been told to stick to the line agreed by the Cabinet. But if Parliament votes for a ban, we probably wouldn't try to overturn it."

The Lords have backed a total ban before and peers believe they will vote for one when they consider the Bill next year.

Downing Street is anxious to avoid a Labour revolt on smoking. After last month's disarray over the Government's policy, No 10 ordered the ministers involved to bury their differences and stick to the compromise they eventually agreed. One minister said: "We have been told to avoid any more squabbles and kiss and make up. Now it's all sweetness and light."

Rebel MPs say the Government's case has been undermined by its announcement of a ban on smoking in all workplaces and enclosed public places in Northern Ireland. The Scottish Parliament approved a total ban and the Welsh Assembly is expected to follow suit. So the Health Bill would leave England out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom.

There are 12 million smokers in Britain. Smoking kills an estimated 114,000 people each year and the NHS spends £1.5bn a year treating smoking-related diseases. Passive smoking at home kills an estimated 11,000 people a year and campaigners say it kills more in the workplace.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the Commons Transport Select Committee, said: "A lot of people feel strongly about it. It should not be a party-political issue. In 30 years, the atmosphere to smoking has changed. Even smokers accept it."

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, said: "Everybody who signed the motion would be duty-bound to support an amendment. There are those who feel strongly about this. They feel the Government is struggling with this in a big way."

Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, said: "If there is an amendment to that effect I will be supporting it. A partial ban will not work."

A survey found that one in five of 65,000 pubs now serving food will stop doing so to allow customers to smoke. The Government's critics say non-food pubs will be concentrated in poor areas, deepening health inequalities.