What is the opposition?
As the second largest party in the House of Commons, the Labour Party is the current official opposition and has held this role since its 2010 election defeat. Its leader, Sir Keir Starmer MP, is the current leader of the opposition. The holder of this office appoints a shadow cabinet and shadow ministers, who develop policies and scrutinise the activities of each government department. They sit on the frontbench opposite government ministers in parliament. The opposition is sometimes referred to as a ‘government in waiting’.
The idea of the official opposition developed during the advent of modern political parties in the 19th century. The rotation in power between two main parties further anchored the concept of a standing opposition facing the government. The opposition’s constitutional role was formalised in the 1930s with the first statutory recognition of the leader of the opposition awarding them a salary.
The term ‘opposition’ can refer to the parliamentary opposition: all the political parties in parliament that are not currently in government. It can also refer to the official opposition, which generally only includes the second largest party in the House of Commons, whose members sit to the left of the Speaker. In this explainer, the term ‘opposition’ refers only to the official opposition, also known as His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
What is the role of the official opposition?
Historically and constitutionally, the opposition is understood to have three main roles: ‘to oppose the government, to criticize it and to seek to replace it’.
It is an alternative government in waiting, hence the term ‘loyal opposition’. Historically, opposition MPs were an alternative government the monarch could look to if the government were failing. In the past, if a motion of no confidence passed in the House, the opposition could have been asked to attempt to form a government if a general election was not appropriate, though the Fixed-Term Parliament Act has changed this.
The opposition is also expected to scrutinise government policy. It does this through the various scrutiny functions available in parliament: asking questions, sitting in committees, and chairing select committees. It will also scrutinise and challenge the government in the media.
How does the opposition oppose government in parliament?
Opposition MPs participate in debates on bills and amendments, usually speaking against those introduced by the government. The opposition tends to vote against government policy, although this is not always the case. The opposition leader is usually given priority in introducing amendments.
Under the Commons Standing Order No.14, opposition parties are allocated 20 days every parliamentary session, during which they can choose the main topic of business and table motions. These are known as ‘opposition days’. Seventeen of these days go to the official opposition, and three go to the smaller opposition parties. Sometimes the government makes additional 'unallotted' days available on which opposition parties can control the parliamentary agenda.
In October 2020, Labour used one of its opposition days to put forward a motion to extend free school meals through half-term, following footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign urging the government to do so. The motion was rejected in parliament but allowed Labour to keep the issue in the public eye. The government later reversed its position.
How does the opposition scrutinise government policy in parliament?
The opposition has two main tools of scrutiny in parliament: parliamentary questions and committees.
At Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) – held in the Commons every Wednesday that parliament is sitting – the leader of the opposition is called upon to ask the prime minister up to six questions.
Other government ministers are questioned in parliament on a rotating basis, for an hour on Monday to Thursday. All MPs can ask questions, but the opposition in particular uses this time to scrutinise the activity of each department. Front bench members of the opposition may ask several questions on different topics, but all MPs asking questions are entitled to one follow-up question. Oral questions must be tabled at least three days in advance.
Opposition MPs may seek information or demand answers to hold ministers to account through other forms of parliamentary questions, for instance written questions which are submitted and replied to in writing. When granted by the Speaker, urgent questions require a minister to give an immediate answer in the Commons. Business questions to the Leader of the House can be used to influence the agenda of the Commons but can also cover wider issues.
In recent years, while the government had no majority in the Commons, the opposition used a mechanism called a ‘humble address’, or motion for a return, to demand papers from the government. This motion had not been used since the 19th century until it had a resurgence and was tabled several times in 2017. Then shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer tabled a humble address in June 2017 to make the government release papers on the impact of Brexit, which it had not done despite being obliged to.
Select committees are cross-party groups which scrutinise departments or specific issues. Chairs are elected by the House and the distribution between parties is allocated in proportion to the number of seats each holds in parliament. Certain select committees, such as the Public Accounts Committee, are always chaired by the opposition. After the 2019 general election, the opposition – the Labour Party – held 202 seats in the House of Commons, out of a total of 650, and were thereby allocated nine select committee chairs. The Conservative Party were given 16 and the Scottish National Party two. Similarly, the composition of each Public Bill committee – temporary committees set up to examine a specific bill – are supposed to reflect the party distribution of the House.
In the House of Lords, opposition peers from all parties are also able to question members of the government, table amendments and scrutinise bills. Questions in the Lords are directed to the government in general, not specific departments.
What is the role of the leader of the opposition?
There are certain parliamentary privileges unique to the role of leader of the opposition. For example, if he or she tables a motion of no confidence in the government, convention dictates that it be promptly debated in the Commons. This convention acknowledges the leader of the opposition’s standing as a potential prime minister. Any MP can table such a motion, but their request may not be granted
The leader of the opposition currently receives an additional salary of £63,098 a year, on top of their normal MP salary. 10 Johnson N, ‘Opposition in the British Political System’, Government and Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, chapter 27, www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1975/27 The opposition leader in the House of Lords and opposition whips across both Houses are also entitled to additional salaries for their roles, but shadow cabinet members are not.
What is the role of the Speaker in supporting the opposition’s rights in parliament?
As a politically impartial figure and the highest authority in the House of Commons, the Speaker plays an important role in ensuring the rights of the opposition in parliament. During debates and questions to ministers, the Speaker alternatively calls MPs from the government and opposition sides, ensuring that time is fairly allocated between the parties. The Speaker also makes decisions regarding which urgent questions and motions to grant, scrutiny tools frequently used by the opposition.
If there is uncertainty as to who the leader of the opposition should be in the event of the resignation of a government (either due to confusion as to which party is the second largest or who that party’s leader is), the Speaker’s decision on the matter is final. This has never happened.
What other rights does the opposition have?
In line with media rules on balance and impartiality, the opposition is entitled to media coverage to present its views and comment on government action. For instance, it is standard practice for the BBC to give the leader of the opposition a right of reply after certain key announcements by the government. During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, a day after prime minister Boris Johnson announced the new three-tiered lockdown system on 12 October 2020, Keir Starmer gave a televised address calling instead for a circuit break lockdown for England.
The government is expected to keep the leader of the opposition, and sometimes other opposition party leaders, informed on matters of major national importance. On 31October 2020, Johnson phoned Starmer to let him know that the government would shortly be announcing a second national lockdown.
The Ministerial and Other Allowances Act 2021 – which was introduced to allow attorney general Suella Braverman to go on maternity leave – gives salaried members of the official opposition (the leader, the leader in the House of Lords, the chief whips in each House and two assistant whips in the Commons) the right to take six months’ maternity leave whilst receiving an allowance.
How is the opposition funded?
To support them in their fulfilment of their constitutional role, all opposition parties have access to ‘Short Money’ which funds policy research and travel expenses. Since 1999, the office costs for the leader of the opposition are also covered for the official opposition. Short Money does not cover MPs’ salaries or the costs of their offices, which are administered separately by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Labour received £6.67 million Short Money in the 2020/21 financial year.
Like any political party, the opposition receives much of its funding through membership fees and donations. However, most of this is used for campaigning or party management purposes. In addition, the Electoral Commission disburses a policy development grant each year, totalling £2 million and distributed to parties with at least two MPs (excluding Sinn Féin, as they have not taken the oath of allegiance to the Crown).
‘Cranborne Money’ has been available to the opposition in the House of Lords since 1996, to help it carry out parliamentary business. 11 UK Parliament, ‘Financial assistance for opposition parties’, UK Parliament, (no date) retrieved 1 February 2022, www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/members-allowances/house-of-lords/financial-assistance-for-opposition-parties/ Labour was entitled to £666,802 in Cranborne Money in the 2021/22 financial year.
Why are some members of the opposition appointed as privy counsellors?
To ensure that the opposition can securely be kept abreast of major developments, especially on security matters, a few senior members of the opposition are sworn into the Privy Council, a formal group of advisers to the King. Membership of the council lasts for life, but few members are required to regularly attend. All are entitled to use the prefix ‘Right Honourable’.
As members of the Privy Council are required to take oath of secrecy when they are sworn in, they can be granted access to confidential briefs at the discretion of the government, although these are voluntary and invitations can be declined. Such briefs – usually on secret or sensitive matters concerning national security – are provided on ‘Privy Council terms’, a convention recognising their confidential nature. 12 The Privy Council Office, ‘FAQs’, The Privy Council Office, (no date), retrieved 1 February 2022, https://privycouncil.independent.gov.uk/privy-council-office/faqs/
How do parties work with each other?
As well as opposing the government, the opposition also facilitates some aspects of its work, for example to ensure that legislation is passed. Party leaders and whips from both sides communicate through the ‘usual channels’, behind the scenes agreements and compromises designed to ensure the smooth running of parliamentary procedures. Smaller opposition parties are also involved.
Before certain votes, government and opposition whips arrange pairings and slips between MPs, enabling some of them to be absent without it affecting the outcome of the vote. In pairings, two MPs from opposing parties are matched and agree not to vote. In slips, whips agree on the number of MPs from their party they will allow to miss a vote. These arrangements are informal and are less likely to be used during important votes. Conservative chief whip Julian Smith attracted controversy in 2018 after allegedly instructing one of his MPs to vote despite having paired them with Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson, who was on parental leave at the time (and therefore couldn’t vote as proxy arrangements had not yet been introduced).
Through such arrangements, the opposition helps the government govern, instead of opposing by obstruction. There are several reasons for this. First, many of the opposition’s rights in parliament are granted by the government on the basis of convention. Regularly obstructing government procedure could lead a government to curtail the opposition’s rights. Second, it is the government which has been given the mandate to govern by the public and it could therefore be unpopular for the opposition to disrupt parliamentary procedure instead of providing constructive opposition.
At times of national crisis, the government and opposition will often cooperate more closely than usual. Sometimes, they formally work together, most notably the Second World War when Winston Churchill’s Conservative and Clement Attlee’s Labour Party formed a government of national unity.
What is the opposition’s relationship with the civil service?
Shadow ministers and opposition MPs usually have little contact with the civil service. However, select committee requests to departments are supposed to be given priority, which means in practice that MPs chairing or working in select committees do sometimes communicate with some civil servants. MPs may also directly write to a department, official or minister to raise an issue from a constituent.
In the run up to an election, the opposition engages in ‘access talks’ with the civil service. It is an opportunity to discuss the policies it wants to enact if elected. The talks enable the civil service to understand the intent behind the opposition’s manifesto pledges and give guidance on their feasibility. Access talks are also a way for the opposition to familiarise itself with the civil service, which has little contact with political parties that are not in government. Concerns and misconceptions, arising from lack of familiarity between the two groups, can be smoothed out. They happen at the prime minister’s discretion and can also be granted to smaller parties at their request. The Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats were granted them during the 2019 general election.