George Osborne pint

The fight for and against the relaxation of Sunday trading in England and Wales has been a long one that over the years has thrown together some unlikely bedfellows.

Never mind the coming together of the Church of England and shopworkers union Usdaw to Keep Sunday Special. Small store owners have also in past relied on the persuasive powers of larger rivals to protect the status quo and what former JS boss Justin King coined as “a great British compromise”.

As such, all attempts to either do away with a perfectly crafted compromise or drag Sunday kicking and screaming into the 21st century – depending on which side of the fence you sit – have floundered.

However, when the Tories swept to power in May in the surprise general election result and a month later the newly emboldened government, now free from the shackles of its former coalition partners, announced plans to devolve the decision-making on Sunday opening times to local authorities, it seemed a done deal.

There was plenty of anger and frustration after the announcement – principally because the Tories had spent a fair chunk of the general election campaign purporting to be the party of small business and had somehow failed to make any mention of the plans in their manifesto.

The anger was to be expected but there was also an acknowledgement that the game may be up and, if the government got its way, that would be it and there was no way the genie could be put back in the bottle.

However today opponents once again have reasons to believe, and again the potential saviour is an unlikely one – as the SNP just might prove to be for small shop owners in England and Wales.

The Scottish nationalists were not expected to vote on the matter of Sunday trading in England and Wales, but in what appears to have been the result of some pretty impressive lobbying on the part of Usdaw, the SNP is now concerned the move could adversely impact retail workers north of the border.

The concern is that if UK-wide retailers are forced to fork out more in wages in England and Wales due to longer opening hours, then they may look to reduce wages as a whole across the UK to make up for it.

This fear seems fairly remote to me at a time when the big supermarkets are falling over themselves in a bid to pay their staff more and score brownie points ahead of the introduction of the national living wage next year – but nevertheless that is the reason being given by the SNP and I’m sure the chance to give George Osborne a bloody nose into the bargain barely entered their heads.

Of course the SNP’s move would be for nought if the government could rely on all its own members to toe the party line. But there are understood to be at least 20 Conservative MP prepared to defy the three-line whip and vote against the move.

It seems inevitable that the laws around Sunday trading will be relaxed at some point, but the chances of that happening in the short term seem to have receded just a little. What appeared a foregone conclusion is now much less clear, and it will be fascinating to see where the government goes from here.