Whipping row over Sunday trading

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(First Edition)

JOHN MAJOR last night led the first government attempt in seven years to end confusion over trading laws and transform the British Sunday by allowing stores to open legally.

The Prime Minister voted for the most radical option allowing unlimited Sunday shopping while preparing to support a compromise proposal that would let small shops open all day and restrict large stores to six hours.

Urging MPs to support Mr Major's preferred choice, Dame Angela Rumbold, a former Home Offfice minister, said: 'The most important thing this House must do is ensure we pass a law that is enforceable . . . I don't think it is my job to say that nobody else can go shopping on a Sunday.'

The Prime Minister's closest supporters toured the Commons tea rooms, unofficially stiffening support for reform among Tory MPs hours before last night's votes.

As MPs prepared to file into the lobbies there were allegations by Labour opponents denied by the Government that Mr Major broke his pledge to allow a free vote. Labour supporters of the Keep Sunday Special option, strictly limiting opening, accused the Government of unofficially whipping Tory MPs.

The whips were not in action but senior Tory backbenchers did apply subtle pressure on colleagues supporting some measure of trading to ensure they did not abstain.

There were fears among Sunday opening supporters that some Tories would fail to vote to avoid upsetting constituency Sabbatarians. 'I'm putting a bit of stiffener into their backbones,' said one close friend of Mr Major.

In a lacklustre Commons debate, Ray Powell, a veteran Labour opponent of Sunday trading, asked Dame Angela whether she was acting for government whips by supporting liberalisation.

Mr Powell also accused Sir Peter Emery, a senior Tory backbencher, of acting in concert with the whips by confusing voters with his last-minute amendment which would allow shops to open after lunch.

However, some ministers openly described that amendment as 'barmy' as buying a box of chocolates with a newspaper could earn a fine of up to pounds 50,000.

Inside Parliament, page 6