Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Gold Medal for the U-Turn?

The Olympics are over; the flame, at last, is out.  Now little remains for us but to tell each other how good it all was, and how ‘positive’ the atmosphere felt, as we await the Paralympics in a fortnight’s time. But if you, at any time, feel you are missing the visceral thrill of watching brave competitors strain every nerve and sinew to succeed at some astonishing feat of power, against heavy odds, fear not. You may soon see politics warming up to attempt a U-turn worthy of a gold medal that will surely be entered in to the annals as a “legislative legend.”   
I refer, of course, to reports that some senior minsters are keen to review impact of the current extension of Sunday Trading hours with a view to making it permanent.  It is not hard to understand why they want to do this. Despite the quantitative easing, the enterprise zones, and the various lending schemes and targets, the UK economy has been shrinking now, for three consecutive quarters.  The government is getting desperate, and so grope, clumsily, for something – anything – that might boost Britain’s trading potential. They look at the laws on Sunday trading, a relic of a bygone era, and see a simple way to deregulate business.
It is far from certain that longer trading hours would do much for the economy, but we must leave that to one side. The economy, despite rumours to the contrary, does not determine everything. Far more importantly, deregulating Sunday trading would be a spectacular U-turn. The government made quite it quite clear that relaxing the restrictions on Sunday trading was strictly a measure for the Olympic and Paralympic games.
George Osborne announced the measure in his 2012 Budget Speech.
George Osborne: So we will introduce legislation limited to relaxing the Sunday trading laws for eight Sundays only, starting on July 22nd
Then, when Vince Cable introduced the Bill, he repeatedly received questions such as ... 
Mr Andrew Smith: What sort of assurance can the Secretary of State give the House that the Bill, or the experience of deregulated trading during the Olympics, will not be used as a Trojan horse to introduce wider deregulation measures? Will he promise the House that that will not happen?
 Vince Cable responded
Vince Cable: There is the suspicion ... that the Bill is a Trojan horse preparing the way for a permanent relaxation of the rules. It is not: the Bill sets out clear time limits and contains a sunset clause.  Any move towards the abolition of the UK’s Sunday trading laws would require new legislation, a full consultation and extensive parliamentary scrutiny. Let me repeat, therefore, that the Bill is not a signal of the Government’s intent on the broader issue of Sunday trading; rather, it is motivated by a desire to capitalise on the unprecedented benefits that accrue from the privilege of hosting the Olympics.

Many politicians, and outside interest groups, accepted or supported the relaxation of the Sunday trading laws on the understanding that it was strictly temporary.  To make it permanent would be a Uturn, or as Conservative MP Mark Pritchard has put it, a major breach of trust.
So far, so routine .... and I started by talking about the Olympics. Well, if the government managed to execute this U-turn, and actually bring about complete deregulation of Sunday trading, it would be - for them -  a triumph of Olympian proportions.  Tory Grande Dame Margaret Thatcher tried to deregulate Sunday trading in 1986. She was at the height of her powers, and her government enjoyed a majority of 140, but the bill was defeated nontheless at the second reading. It remains the only Government bill to be defeated at the second reading since the Second World War.  
The current government, on the other hand, is a weak coalition, growing ever more strained, with a majority of 38. It now may be about to attempt permanent deregulation of Sunday trading, despite such a move being identified as the cause of a new rift in the coalitionripe for Tory backbench rebellion, despite 89% of people being opposed, and despite having promised parliament and the country that they wouldn’t do that very thing. I wish it very best of British luck.
Stand by for a Gold Medal U-turn.