Number 10 has conceded that its plans to relax Sunday trading laws are dead in the water, after David Cameron suffered his first House of Commons defeat since the election at the hands of his own Conservative MPs.
The government’s attempt to let shops trade for longer than six hours each Sunday was voted down after 26 Tory backbenchers teamed up with Labour and the SNP.
It lost by 31 votes after Cameron failed to reach a compromise with unconvinced MPs, who argued that it was necessary to “keep Sunday special” and protect family time for shop workers.
The defeat is the first of this parliament in the House of Commons for Cameron, and the first major one since his failure to win a vote on military action in Syria in 2013.
Downing Street was quick to blame the SNP, because the Scottish nationalists helped scupper the measures relating to England and Wales even though Sunday trading laws are already relaxed in Scotland.
But the real damage to the government was done by 27 of its MPs, whose rebellion underlined Cameron’s weakened grasp over his parliamentary party and highlighted the fractious mood of backbenchers in the runup to next week’s budget and June’s referendum on membership of the European Union.
The defeat was particularly painful because ministers had offered to significantly water down the plans by rolling them out in only 12 pilot areas, in a last-ditch attempt to stave off the rebellion.
However, the government submitted its amendment too late to the Speaker, John Bercow, and MPs were unwilling to accept a promise by Brandon Lewis, a communities minister, that the concession would be introduced in the House of Lords.
It is understood No 10 then rang round Tory MPs to try to bring them on side, but was unable to persuade enough to make a difference to the result.
Following the vote, Downing Street sources confirmed they were conceding defeat and there would now be no plans to proceed with more pilot schemes or find a way to circumvent the SNP’s opposition. “It’s a clear result so we would not expect there is any way forward,” the source said.
The plan would have allowed local councils to make a decision about whether to let larger stores stay open for longer than six hours on Sundays, which ministers said could benefit the UK economy by an estimated £1.5bn or more over 10 years.
But the successful rebellion was led by David Burrowes, who laid an amendment to kill off the plans completely by striking them from the legislation.
The Burrowes amendment was supported by 317 MPs from across the parties, including Labour, the SNP, the DUP, some Tories and some Lib Dems, while 286 voted against it.
Speaking against the plans, Burrowes said: “We have a job to do in parliament, we don’t just devolve every decision out to our constituents.
“If we listen to our constituents … I have many shopworkers, many faith groups and many others saying why are we doing this? Why are we trying to unpick something that’s fairly settled?
“That’s me listening to my constituents. But also we have important principles as well, those are complex arrangements for Sunday trading and it’s a duty on us to look at it carefully, to consult widely and also scrutinise it fairly.
“None of those things have happened to the regard that did happen back in the 1990s and 1980s. It shouldn’t surprise us that we are in this situation now where there is a lot of concern, a lot of cross-party concern.”
Ministers had hoped to avoid a defeat by doing a deal with the SNP but the partydecided on Tuesday night to vote against the measures – giving the government little time to thrash out a compromise with Tory rebels. The SNP said it acted to avoid a “knock-on impact to Scottish workers who would be at risk of pay cuts”.
Responding for the government, Sajid Javid, the business secretary, said he respected the will of MPs, who opposed the measures out of principle, despite the “extremely disappointing” result.
However, he condemned the “childish and hypocritical actions of the SNP”, saying they had sought to deny shoppers in the rest of the UK the same freedoms enjoyed in Scotland and pointing out that a majority of English and Welsh MPs had voted in favour.
Angela Eagle, Labour’s shadow business secretary, said it was Labour who had led the charge against the government’s plans to deregulate Sunday trading.
“We support the current arrangements, which work well and mean retailers can trade, customers can shop, and shopworkers can spend time with their families,” she said.
“I warned the government that unless they pulled their plans then they would face a public and humiliating defeat on the floor of the House of Commons. That is exactly what we have delivered.
“The government must now listen to the settled will of the House of Commons and confirm that they will not attempt to bring back these plans, which were not in the Tory election manifesto, for a third time.”
The defeat was greeted with delight by John Hannett, general secretary of Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union.
“This is the third occasion in five years that Conservative ministers have attempted to permanently change Sunday trading regulations and the third time they have been unsuccessful,” he said. “We hope now the government will leave this great British compromise alone and focus on providing real support for the retail sector, not the unwanted and unnecessary bureaucracy that devolution would have resulted in.
“The current Sunday trading rules are a fair compromise, which has worked well for over 20 years.”