The Official Opposition

4.6The importance of the Opposition in the system of parliamentary government has long received practical recognition in the procedure of Parliament. Even before the first Reform Act, the phrase ‘His Majesty's Opposition’ had been coined by John Cam Hobhouse.1 In 1937, statutory recognition was accorded through the grant of a salary to the Leader of the Opposition.2 The prevalence (on the whole) of the two-party system has usually removed any uncertainty as to which party has the right to be called the ‘Official Opposition’; it is the largest minority party which is prepared, in the event of the resignation of the Government, to assume office.3 The Leader of the Opposition and some of the Leader's principal colleagues in both Houses form a group, known as ‘the Shadow Cabinet’, each member of which is given a particular range of activities on which it is their task to direct criticism of the Government's policy and administration and to outline alternative policies. Since 1975, the Official Opposition has been entitled to financial assistance (known as ‘Short Money’) to help meet, among other expenses, the running costs of the office of the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition is also provided with a suite of offices at Westminster.

Since the strength of modern party discipline tends to reduce the effectiveness in the House of Commons of a direct attack upon a Government, the criticism of the Opposition is primarily directed towards the electorate, with a view to the next election, or with the aim of influencing government policy through the pressure of public opinion. The floor of the House of Commons provides the Opposition with its main instrument for this purpose. Accordingly, the Opposition has the right to exercise the initiative in selecting the subject of debate on a certain number of days in each session4 and on such occasions as the debate on the Address in reply to the Queen's speech (see para 8.37 ) or from time to time by putting down motions of no confidence. The Leader of the Opposition is by custom accorded certain rights in asking questions of Ministers (see para 19.15 ), and members of the Shadow Cabinet and other Official Opposition spokespersons are also given some precedence in asking questions and in debate. Those speaking on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition are almost invariably exempted from speech limits.5

Footnotes

  1. HC Deb (10 April 1826) 15, c 135. For a history of the development of the Official Opposition, see Grégoire Webber, ‘Loyal Opposition and the Political Constitution’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 37.2 (2017), pp 357–82.
  2. Ministers of the Crown Act 1937 (c 38), s 5; see para 4.43.
  3. The Speaker's decision on the identity of the Leader of the Opposition is final (Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 (c 27), s 2(2)). For the Speaker's ruling on the identity of the Leader of the Opposition and the main Opposition party, see HC Deb (29 June 2016) 612, c 340.
  4. Of the 20 Opposition days, 17 are at the disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three at the disposal of the leader of the second largest opposition party (SO No 14(2)) who may decide to allow the leader of the next largest party to choose the topic of debate on one of these days; eg HC Deb (11 March 2015) 594, c 303; see also para 18.13.
  5. SO No 47(2).