Total ban on pub smoking likely after Blair U-turn on free vote

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A total ban on smoking in pubs became more likely after a U-turn by Tony Blair gave Labour MPs and ministers a free vote to avoid an embarrassing split.

The Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, will vote for a total ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces and against her own Health Bill, which contains a compromise to allow smoking in pubs that do not serve food.

Ms Hewitt warned a cabinet committee that the compromise was unworkable, but John Reid, the Defence Secretary, persuaded colleagues to stick to the manifesto commitment for a partial ban.

Senior ministers now fear that allowing the free vote on smoking will embolden rebel Labour MPs to demand a free vote on other controversial issues such as the Education Bill, which they claim will lead to selection in schools.

Mr Blair, who also supports a total ban on smoking in public spaces, bowed to pressure after Kevin Barron, the Labour chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Health, threatened to lead a rebellion by tabling an amendment. One senior official said: "We decided that it was not worth having a rebellion and a split over it. There is a risk that the rebels will say that education is also a conscience issue but that is a risk we will have to face."

Ministers believe the Tories, who will also allow a free vote, are also split on the issue. The leader, David Cameron, wants a partial ban, but the shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley wants a total ban. It is likely that a combination of Labour MPs, some Tories, and Liberal Democrats will be enough to gain a majority for a total smoking ban in enclosed public spaces. Exemptions are almost certain to be given for private members' clubs, mental institutions and prisons.