The anatomy of the Tory Government defeat on Sunday Trading

Understandably newspaper accounts of the defeat of the Government on Sunday trading this week are superficial, but there is a more nuanced story than the headlines suggest.

To defeat the Tory Government with its overall majority a number of factors are required. It must be an issue which angers at least some Conservative MPs; enough to defy the party whip. All other political parties in parliament must be united in opposition, and motivated enough to turn out their troops. Sunday trading presented Labour with an opportunity to defeat the Government but one which could easily have been missed without careful handling.

It passed the test as an issue which angered some Conservatives. Like every party the Tories are a coalition of views. Some are laissez-faire marketeers who couldn't give a jot about keeping Sunday special. The market means freedom and to hell with tradition. Others however are traditionalists, concerned about the impact of modern life on family and faith, who regard extending Sunday trading hours as undermining traditional British culture.

So when on the cusp of the General Election, David Cameron denied he had any plans to change the laws to allow large shops to open for longer hours, and left it out of the Tory manifesto, they took him at his word as the Prime Minister who said every policy had to be tested against its impact on the family.

Their feeling of betrayal was compounded by the manner in which the Government went about its work. Instead of including their proposals openly in the Enterprise Bill they avoided scrutiny from the House of Lords (including the Bishops) by only announcing the Sunday trade clause when the Bill had already been through its Lords stages, and was seeing its Second Reading in the Commons. Our Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle, whose Deputy I am, made clear her outrage at Sajid Javid's approach.

The question for Labour was how to stop this grubby manoeuvre in the Commons when it wasn't at all clear we had the votes. It was apparent to us that we would have to use the Committee stage of the Bill, on which I was leading for the opposition as Shadow Business Minister, to lay the groundwork for a victory, and the later Report Stage in the House to deliver it.

So at Second Reading we insisted that since no Sunday Trading clauses had yet been published we should have a second day of protected time in the Commons on Report to consider it. This was crucial to ensure that the Government could not avoid a timetabled debate where their disgruntled backbenchers could speak in numbers.

In committee we had a great team with Bill Esterson on the frontbench with me, Jessica Morden our whip and great support from Caroline Flint, Mary Creagh and Catherine McKinnell. We also had the problem of the SNP. They were not prepared to vote against the Sunday Trading clause at that stage. I calculated that provided we didn't paint them into a corner they might eventually come to the right conclusion.

So we decided not to vote against the proposals in Committee, despite expressing our clear opposition, but to wait until Report Stage. It was a case of live to fight another day, when our forces would be stronger, rather than face defeat in a Committee packed with handpicked Tories and a neutral SNP. In the meantime I reminded them that this measure if introduced would undoubtedly impact negatively on premium pay for Scottish retail workers, 38,000 of whom were members of the shop workers’ Union USDAW who would be lobbying heavily against the change.

Our tactics undoubtedly frustrated Tory Ministers who wanted to divide and rule, to the extent that they condemned them at Report Stage, but they were spot on.

As the Bill left Committee the pressure was building on the SNP with letters from us and lobbying from USDAW members and others.

We were helped by the fact that the Government got their tactics wrong. To sweeten the pill they added some additional rights for Sunday retail workers which also applied in Scotland to, the same clause as the Sunday Trading changes. This meant this Clause could not be certified as England and Wales only meaning a vote against would kill it completely, without new rules on EVEL and WEVEWL applying.

The Lib Dems were in a strange position with Tim Farron originally supporting the Government but eventually coming round. The Northern Ireland MPs all support trying to keep Sunday's special, so the numbers were promising. The only party 100% behind the Government was UKIP with their single MP.

By Monday this week it was clear the SNP were on the move. Two of their MPs told me they would have broken the whip had the Party not changed its position, as they agreed that Scottish workers would be affected by the impact on premium pay. The decision was taken at their Party meeting on the eve of the vote to vote against the Government, and so it was game on.

The vote was by no means yet won however. Our view all along was that we should allow the dissident Tories to take the lead to maximise their numbers. Labour frontbenches kept away from signing David Burrowes’ amendment, although we were ready to re-table it if it was withdrawn under pressure from the Tory whips.

On the day of a big vote the Whips have their work cut out. Ours, under our Chief Whip Rosie Winterton and Deputy Alan Campbell had warned Labour MPs long in advance that there would be a tight lid on absences on Wednesday. They were in early making sure our MPs, were physically present on the parliamentary estate and not wandering off anywhere too far from the Commons.

We had to be prepared for the inevitable last throw of the dice from a Government facing defeat. Sure enough it came in an attempt to table a late amendment offering to pilot the plans. They hoped this would buy off enough of their rebels to allow the Government to prevail.

We objected vigorously to their ruse. They had introduced the Sunday Trading Clause late, now they wanted to introduce a further amendment long after the deadline with no time for the opposition to respond. Rightly our objections prevailed and the amendment was not tabled for debate by the Speaker. In any case the tactic backfired with Tory rebels who saw through a clumsy attempt to pull the wool over their eyes.

The debate was overwhelmingly hostile to the Government’s proposals. It didn't help that it was widely believed that George Osbourne was behind the whole thing, as he is a divisive figure amongst Tory MPs, many of whom resent his positioning as Cameron’s successor. The Minister, Brandon Lewis, did his best on the stickiest of wickets but it was clear that few were convinced. He tried to suggest we were voting against the additional rights for workers, but the Government failed to notice that the rebel amendment left more rights in the Bill.

When the vote came it was decisive. The Government majority of 12 was overturned with a majority of 31. It was a victory for families and shop workers, but also for our parliamentary tactics which outwitted the Government’s attempt to bounce the Commons. And yes the enhanced workers’ rights remain in the Bill – the next battle will be to force the Government to honour them.