British lawmakers are about to vote on plans to change a weird quirk in the UK’s trading laws, but some Tories are so mad about it they are planning to rip their own party apart. The Financial Times reports as many as 50 Conservative MPs are planning to vote against Chancellor George Osborne’s plan to relax Sunday trading laws when it comes before the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The Conservative Government has a majority of just 17, so it would only take less than half of the rumoured rebels to derail the Sunday Trading reforms.
At the heart of the disagreement is an odd law which has a big impact on shopping in the UK. If a shop in England or Wales is over 280m sq, it is only allowed to open for six continuous hours between 10am and 6pm on a Sunday. If it is under 280m sq it can stay open as long as it wants.
Osborne’s bill would let local councils allow bigger stores to remain open for longer on Sunday if they want to.
This might not sound like much of a big deal, but some people are strongly against letting stores over 280m sq serve customers for longer on a Sunday. Critics of Osborne’s plans say changing the rules would damage small shops by displacing trade to larger stores. There’s even a campaign group called Keep Sunday Special which argues Sunday is a “special day” that allows families and communities to spend time together.
The Keep Sunday Special organisation isn’t a fringe group. Last year Sainsbury’s Chief Executive Mike Coupe said the current restrictions were a “happy British compromise” that he would prefer to remain in place. Sainbury’s is the second-largest supermarket chain in the UK
While some people have a sentimental attachment to regulating which shops customers are allowed to use on a Sunday, others can see the obvious economic benefits of allowing stores to stay open for longer.
The New West End Company, which represents 25 streets in London’s Mayfair, says it could generate an extra £260 million of sales and 2,000 full-time jobs if their larger stores were allowed to stay open for just two more hours a week.
Sunday trading is allowed in Scotland, but the Scottish National Party (SNP), which normally doesn’t vote on matters only affecting England and Wales, could oppose the bill because it does not want anyone else to have the same liberal trading laws Scotland enjoys. The SNP claims it is worried competition will mean Scottish employers will start paying their employees less for working on a Sunday.
You can see why Osborne wants to change the rules, it’s an easy win for the economy.
So why are so many of his own MPs willing to rebel against their party in order to scuttle his plan? The Sunday Telegraph even report that at least two ministers are thinking about quitting in order to vote down the bill.
There are two things at work here.
The first is the way Osborne has gone about trying to change the law. He knows many MPs in his party have a strong emotional connection to the current Sunday trading laws, yet he has done everything over their heads. The change to the law wasn’t in the Conservative manifesto, hasn’t been debated in the Lords, and no Conservative MPs who are sceptical about changing the law were included in the committee that drew up the changes.
And to top it all off, here is what David Cameron said in April 2015: “I can assure you that we have no current plans to relax the Sunday trading laws.”
The second issue is the upcoming EU referendum. Almost half of Tory MPs support Brexit and are furious at the way the issue is being handled by the prime minister. They are starting to lose patience. It’s not that Sunday trading hours is the most important issue in the world to them, it’s just that it has become the issue that has pushed some of them over the edge.
It’s a silly thing for a government to split over, but buying a pint of milk at 7 pm on a Sunday could be the issue that causes the government to fall apart.
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