Party officials confirmed they would consider halting cooperation with the Tories over parliamentary business unless the government considers rowing back on plans to cut “Short money” (named after Ted Short, a former leader of the Commons) announced in the autumn statement. Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, has described the cuts as an attack on democracy.
Opposition parties claim the government proposal shows the Tories are attempting to halt the ability of opposition parties to scrutinise legislation at the same time as they are increasing the numbers of Tory special advisers.
Obstructing “the usual channels” has been discussed, a party source said, but would only be used as a last resort if the government failed to come forward with new proposals for opposition party funding in the new year.
“The usual channels” describes the working relationships between the government and the main opposition party that goes on behind the scenes, usually done through the whips’ office.
One long-standing form of cooperation is “pairing” during votes in the Commons. If a minister or backbench Tory MP cannot attend a vote because of urgent business, a foreign trip or illness, Labour whips will designate one of their own MPs to abstain, so the two absent MPs cancel each other out.
The removal of pairing could force ministers to attend every vote and could severely hamper plans to get legislation through parliament. David Cameron’s government has a slender majority of 16.
Farron said the proposed cut to Short money was an attack on democracy, not the cost of politics as the government claims.
“While on the one hand the government want to cut Short money, they are spending £289m this year alone on government spinners and marketing. This proposal is a purely partisan move that will backfire on the government disastrously,” he said.
The spending review in November contained plans to reduce Short money by 19% and then freeze it over the remainder of parliament.
It is allocated to help run opposition parties in parliament and is calculated by the number of seats won and the number of votes gained. Official figures from May show Labour was due to receive £5.7m, the Scottish National party £1.1m, the Democratic Unionist party £153,000 and the Lib Dems £497,000.
The cut was not mentioned by George Osborne in his autumn statement speech to the Commons but emerged later when full documentation was released.
Meanwhile, David Cameron has increased the amount of public money spent on Conservative special advisers over the past year while freezing public sector pay.
The Labour chief whip, Rosie Winterton, attended a meeting of opposition representatives held in parliament shortly before Christmas to discuss the proposed cut. It could be damaging for Labour, which has been shunned by some wealthy donors since first electing Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
The SNP expressed concern that the cut would have a big impact on its work in Westminster as it gears up to perform new roles in the Commons including having seats in every select committee and participating in every debate.
Since its dramatic gains in the general election, the SNP has hired many new staff who might have to be sacked because of the proposals, a party source said.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, said the proposal was a fundamental attack, particularly on the work of smaller parties. “It is not acceptable for the party of government to misuse its position to undermine democratic accountability and the work of the opposition. The government must think again,” he said.
The DUP believes the cut would represent a combined loss of £32,392 in the next financial year. A DUP official said the government should face further scrutiny over how many Tory supporters are now on the public payroll.
“MPs need to be publicly supported in discharging their democratic mandate. Ministers already have the vast apparatus of the civil service. There are legitimate questions to be asked about whether the government is properly and effectively using public funds for party political ends,” the official said.
A No 10 source said: “Cutting the huge deficit we inherited from Labour is crucial in building a strong and secure British economy. Government departments, local councils and other parts of the public sector have had to make savings to help reduce Britain’s deficit. We believe it is right to ask political parties to help tackle the deficit too by making savings in Short money.”
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