Downing Street is facing a knife-edge vote in the House of Commons over its plans to liberalise Sunday trading laws in England and Wales, after the SNP announced it would vote against the proposals.
Whitehall sources accused the SNP of performing a “flip-flop” after the party’s deputy leader Stewart Hosie announced that the SNP would support Tory rebels in seeking to defeat plans to give councils greater powers to liberalise Sunday trading.
The SNP leadership, which had apparently indicated to the UK government in recent weeks that it would not stand in the way of the reforms outlined by George Osborne in his budget in July, changed tack after the weekly meeting of its MPs.
The party’s 54 MPs will vote with the Tory rebels, led by David Burrowes, who are seeking to defeat government plans to give councils the right to zone areas that would be free from restricted trading hours. Hosie said: “We will support the Burrowes amendment.”
UK government sources indicated that the decision by the SNP guarantees that the vote on the final Commons stages of the enterprise bill on Wednesday afternoon will be tight.
Burrowes has won the support of 24 Tory MPs. If he can increase that number to around 36, he should be able to defeat the government with the help of Labour and the SNP. The government has a parliamentary majority of 17.
One option would be for the government to seek to reduce the number of Tory rebels by accepting an amendment by the former Tory environment secretary Caroline Spelman to allow cities with large numbers of tourists to opt out of the current Sunday trading laws.
A UK government source said: “It’s disappointing and hypocritical of the SNP to be trying to deny people the freedoms to shop that are already available to those they represent in Scotland.
“It’s a particularly extraordinary position for a party that supposedly believes in devolution of powers from Whitehall to be seeking to stand in the way of local leaders in the rest of the UK being able to choose what’s right for their communities and their economies.”
Whitehall sources expressed irritation with the SNP, which reportedly indicated to the UK government in recent weeks that it would not stand in the way of the reforms, which only apply in England and Wales.
The SNP has an informal policy of abstaining in votes on matters which do not relate to Scotland. But Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, announced last November that the SNP would oppose the plans on the grounds that they could drive down the wages of Scottish workers who enjoy a special Sunday premium.
The shopworkers’ union Usdaw warned the SNP that normalising Sunday trading hours in England and Wales would prompt large retailers to set a lower wage for workers across the UK. The government shelved the vote after Robertson’s announcement in November.
Whitehall sources said that they had been given indications by the SNP, which recently brokered a new fiscal settlement with the UK government, that the party had changed its position. It had been widely expected that the SNP would abstain in the vote.
Hosie denied that the SNP had changed tack under pressure from the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, ahead of the Holyrood elections in May, who had warned that the “rights of Scottish workers must not be subject to a Tory-SNP stitchup in Westminster”.
The SNP deputy leader said: “There’s never ever been any guarantee at all, any understanding, indication that we would be automatically supporting any such measure. There was never any agreement that we would support or abstain to allow this measure to go through.”
Hosie added: “Our key concern all along was the protection of premium pay for employees in Scotland. We have listened to the evidence on both sides of this incredibly carefully.
“Our judgment is that should this become a UK-wide system without legal protections in place, there would be an inevitable erosion of premium pay for employees in Scotland.”
The UK government sought to win over wavering Tory MPs by releasing a letter from the leaders of 102 Conservative councils supporting government plans to give councils the right to zone areas that would be free from restricted trading hours.
Brandon Lewis, the communities minister who received the letter, argues that the current law prevents shops that cover more than 3,000 sq ft from opening for more than six hours on a Sunday. Lewis says that allowing department stores, supermarkets and garden centres to open for longer would rejuvenate high streets.
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