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LONDON — Eighteen months into his premiership and facing electoral wipeout, Rishi Sunak was in search of a legacy.

It was in this state of mind last year that the flagging U.K. prime minister proposed a phased, generational ban on smoking — something almost without precedent throughout the world.

On Tuesday night the plan moved one step toward becoming a reality, when the House of Commons passed legislation paving the way for the ban at its first major parliamentary stage — but not without plenty of grumbling from Sunak’s own restive MPs.

The policy means it will be illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 2009 — effectively preventing children turning 15 or younger this year from ever legally buying tobacco.

A near-identical plan was due to come into force in New Zealand under then-PM Jacinda Ardern, before it was reversed by her successors before anyone had been prevented from taking up the habit.

That means Sunak is genuinely set to make history — just don’t expect him to get much thanks for it from his own party, which is riven by splits after 14 years in power.

“It will save more lives than any other decision we could take,” Sunak argued as he unveiled the plan in his party conference speech last October. “As prime minister I have an obligation to do what I think is the right thing for our country in the long-term.”

Some Conservatives weren’t buying a center-right prime minister making the ban a key tenet of his pitch to voters, however. And plenty in Westminster were watching the vote for signs of how the purity test of the next Conservative leadership contest might shape up.

“What’s his legacy going to be? Banning smoking?” asked one skeptical minister, granted anonymity to speak freely about government decision-making, of Sunak. “Is that really how he wants to be remembered?”

Blue fury

In the event, 59 Tory MPs voted against the measure at its second reading Tuesday night. Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch — seen as a key contender to become the next leader should the Tories lose the election — was among those in Sunak’s own ministerial ranks voting against the bill, citing what she called “significant concerns.”

At least six members of the government payroll voted against Sunak, and Badenoch’s fellow Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt — another post-Sunak leadership favorite — abstained. There were more than 100 Tory abstentions.

Ahead of the crunch, and recognizing the likely opposition from his party, which contains a sizable libertarian caucus, Sunak had offered a free, un-whipped vote. That meant his parliamentary troops could rebel without punishment on a matter of conscience.

The opposition Labour Party, riding high in the polls in an election year, painted the move as a sign of weakness on Sunak’s part. Labour MPs were ordered to vote in favor of the legislation.

In a sign of the psychodrama around the vote, some of the most strident criticism of Sunak’s plan came from the prime minister’s immediate predecessors — each of whom has their own ax to grind with Sunak after years of Tory in-fighting.

Former PM Liz Truss told the BBC the plans were “un-Conservative” — and voted against the bill. She warned MPs during Tuesday’s Commons debate that “the health police” will next move to trying to restrict food or alcohol.

Truss’ predecessor Boris Johnson, no longer an MP, has similarly described the plans as “nuts.”

“The party of Winston Churchill wants to ban [cigars]?” complained Johnson, speaking at a conference in Ottawa last week, and evoking the memory of the cigar-chomping wartime leader.

Responding to Johnson, Sunak’s Health Secretary Victoria Atkins was reduced to arguing that under the plan Churchill would not have been prevented from smoking cigars in adulthood.

Ministers and supporters also point to widespread public backing for the policy, including among Conservative voters — and say it will reduce much strain on public services.

Helpful reds

Despite the scale of the Conservative rebellion Tuesday, the smoking bill passed easily thanks to support from Labour — something the opposition sought to make political hay over.

“The prime minister may be too weak to whip his MPs to vote for this important bill, but on these benches we will put country first and foremost,” Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting told the Commons. “We will resist the temptation to play games on votes.

Labour’s widespread support for the measure ensures that its safe passage through its next stages in parliament appears secure, even if some Conservative rebels attempt to amend it down the line in order to water down its aims.

For Sunak, that means at least one aspect of his legacy is safe — even if it’s cost cost him yet another public bust-up with his own party.

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