Whatever your view on George Osborne’s push for an extension of Sunday trading, its manner can scarcely have been more likely to alienate Conservative MPs. It was not in last May’s Conservative Manifesto. Indeed, David Cameron gave indications to the contrary. “I can assure you that we have no current plans to relax the Sunday trading laws, We believe that the current system provides a reasonable balance,” he said. The plans not been debated in the Lords. But the last Government pledged that Parliament as a whole would have the opportunity to consider any changes. Responses to a consultation have not been published. The committee of the Bill to which the proposals were tacked on did not, as Michael Trend wrote recently on this site, “include any of the Conservatives who are known to oppose the measure, which seems to be a necessity, as otherwise the Government wouldn’t have a majority”.
The consequences of these sleights-of-hand now include two Ministers threatening to resign, PPS’s following their lead, and rebellion from up to 50 Tory MPs – enough to defeat the Government if the SNP decide to turn out. The deadly interplay between the Government’s programme and the EU referendum is again at work. And the tempers of pro-Brexit MPs will not be cooled by claims, backed by Boris Johnson in today’s Sunday Telegraph, that Downing Street was behind the silencing of John Longworth, the Leave-backing Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce.
There is the best of the Chancellor and there is the worst of him. The best includes his intricate consultation over pensions reform, crafted to pave the way for radical reform of the system. The worst includes his obsessive urge to tamper with Britain’s Sunday trading settlement, for which Ministers have no mandate and which his colleagues are simply lumped with: to Sajid Javid and his team falls the task of dealing with the proposals in the Commons this Wednesday. One of the consequences is that all too often Osborne’s colleagues no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. This distrust was a contributor to the withdrawal of those pension plans, which could have included fairer incentives to save. The indefatigable David Burrowes has tabled an amendment to the Sunday trading proposals. David Burrowes and Caroline Spelman are proposing compromises. Ministers should find one, and quickly.