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The chairman of the Commons and Lords Pipe and Cigar Club has an alarming confession.

“I’ve never smoked,” says Michael Morris, an 87-year old Conservative peer, whose official title is Lord Naseby. “Actually, that’s not quite true,” he goes on. “I did smoke the odd cigar at university, but I’ve never smoked cigarettes.”

These days the Pipe and Cigar Club, which gained brief notoriety for holding smoking events around the time of the England’s 2007 ban on puffing on cigarettes indoors in public places, is not what it used to be.

Many of its most well-known members, such as the biscuit magnate Adrian (Lord) Palmer or the World War Two codebreaker Jean Barker (aka Baroness Trumpington,) are since deceased.

The group now meets only once a year for Christmas lunch, according to Rupert Lewis, director of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, which provided funding and administrative support to the club in its better days.

If U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has his way, there will be no new members of the club among parliamentarians of the future.

This week his legislation to introduce a phased smoking ban, meaning those born after 2009 will never be allowed to purchase cigarettes, passed its first stages in parliament.

It’s has been welcomed by many — but greeted with no little nostalgia by some of Westminster’s fans of the evil weed.

While it may be increasingly difficult to find parliamentarians willing to champion the joys of smoking, it was not always so.

When the Commons held a crunch vote in 2006 on measures brought forward by Labour under Tony Blair to prohibit smoking in public places, scores of MPs from various parties fought a rearguard action to exempt private clubs from the ban.

Camaraderie in the members’ smoking room

Before that, the Commons’ members’ smoking room was one of many informal spaces in parliament where MPs could meet, chat, and conspire over a cheroot or two.

“Here it is that Radicals and Tories and Whigs assemble, and under the soothing influence of the cigar forget their hereditary animosities, and amicably discuss the probabilities of the ‘ins’ and the prospects of the ‘outs’,” as one newspaper from 1853 recorded.

Winston Churchill was, unsurprisingly, a stalwart of the smoking room. However, it was not just a Tory hangout; as the parliamentary historian Paul Seaward notes, Churchill could be found there arguing with Labour MPs including Aneurin Bevan, father of the National Health Service.

Matthew Parris, a Times columnist and Conservative MP in the 1980s, recalls the smoking room as “very masculine … somehow the haze of cigarette smoke and cigar smoke and the fumes of brandy which we used to drink there just made it a very male sort of place.”

Labour’s Angela Eagle, one of only a handful of sitting female MPs elected before the ban, said: “Occasionally we [women] used to go into the smoking room mob-handed just to worry them.”

More than other communal areas of parliament, it had the atmosphere of an old fashioned gentleman’s club, Parris says. 

He recounts an occasion in which the famously indulgent Tory MP, the late Spencer Le Marchant proposed a “horse race” around the smoking room with older MPs riding on the backs of younger MPs. (The Evening Standard apparently got wind of the scheme and the whips put a stop to it.)

By 1990 another Conservative, Alan Clark, sniffed in his diary: “Now it is frequented only by soaks, traditionalists, and memory-lane buffers.”

A cigarette haze in parliament

But there was still a lively scene conducted under a cigarette haze in parliament right up until the public smoking ban — and afterwards.

Lauren McEvatt, a former special adviser who interned for a Conservative MP in the mid-2000s, has warm memories of Bellamy’s bar, now a restaurant which bears little resemblance to its former incarnation.

“Bellamy’s used to be this really worn-around-the-edges kind of place with squishy armchairs where you sort of had to part the smoke as you walked in,” she says.

One well-known political cigar smoker, Tory grandee Ken Clarke, reputedly took the smoking ban particularly badly, and was rumored to sneak off for the odd puff in the toilet after its introduction.

The ban from 2007 did have some advantages for parliament’s smokers, however, forging new communities of those forced to gather outside the building to indulge their habit.

“I know so much more about other parties because of encountering other staff members and politicians in the smoking area,” says McEvatt.

Indeed, some of the country’s most high-profile politicians have found it hard to quit. Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove is said to love smoking so much he had a special hut built on the roof of his ministry to avoid hecklers as he has a crafty cig.

David Cameron, who had spoken of his struggle to ditch nicotine, once described the stress of his doomed EU referendum and leaving Downing Street as leading him to take up the habit again.

A dying habit

A longstanding member of the Lobby — the cadre of Westminster journalists entitled to attend Downing Street briefings — notes that the odd cigarette is useful for intelligence-gathering, since there is “a feeling of solidarity while smoking in cold wet weather, and some people do open up more.”

The journalist did not want to use their name because their family doesn’t know that they smoke — symptomatic of the current landscape in parliament and wider politics, where it is now harder to find smokers who are out and proud.

Kevin Barron, a former Labour MP who was closely involved in shaping the 2007 ban, thinks any nostalgia for smoke-filled rooms is misplaced.

“I was a smoker when I was a young teenager,” he said. “The addiction gets most people when they’re when they’re quite young, and … the reality is if you become a regular smoker of combustible cigarettes, 50 percent of people who do that will die a premature death.”

In Tuesday’s Commons debate on Sunak’s proposals to phase out smoking, only one serving MP admitted to being an active smoker.

But a far greater number refused to give the Tobacco and Vaping Bill their backing, with 57 Tories voting against and a further 106 abstaining. 

The main objections raised to the bill predominantly by MPs on Sunak’s back benches were that the age cutoff in the bill is unworkable and fundamentally “un-Conservative” in its aim of curtailing consumer choice.

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