PM set to allow free vote over ban on public smoking

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is poised to announce a free vote on a ban on smoking in all pubs to minimise the damage over a split in the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister has told senior cabinet colleagues that he is ready to allow a free vote, in spite of ruling it out earlier on the grounds that a partial ban was proposed in Labour's election manifesto.

A U-turn would bring a complete ban on smoking in public a step closer and avoid an ambush by backbenchers led by Kevin Barron, the Labour chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Health, who have threatened to table an amendment to the Health Bill to impose a complete ban if a free vote is not allowed. "We are looking at how much political damage a free vote would do," said a senior Blair ally. "We could allow a free vote; it's not really a mainstream issue.''

The Cabinet was split, but John Reid, the Defence Secretary, persuaded the Cabinet to stick to its manifesto commitment to allow smoking to continue in pubs that do not serve food.

Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, has continued to hold out for a total ban, warning that a partial ban would be unworkable.

The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, revealed he had considered resigning over the Government's refusal to go ahead with a total ban on smoking in public places. Mr Blair, in an interview at the weekend, made it clear he supported a total ban and said Sir Liam's stand was "absolutely right".

Ministers who support a total ban believe they can exploit it to attack David Cameron, the Tory leader, for refusing to court unpopularity by adopting policies which can cut cancer rates. Mr Cameron would allow a free vote, but he will vote against a total ban.