THE SNP group at Westminster is drawing up plans to inflict more parliamentary defeats on the UK government by working with Conservative rebels to embarrass David Cameron.
Nationalist strategists working with the 56 SNP MPs – among them former first minister Alex Salmond – have identified key issues they believe can attract support from the Tory benches to oppose the government in key votes.
The strategy is being planned in the hope that the dramatically expanded SNP group can undermine Cameron’s leadership by paralysing his legislative programme.
Nicola Sturgeon’s party believes the slender nature of Cameron’s majority means he is extremely vulnerable to sustained attacks on issues, particularly when there is internal disagreement within the Tories.
The SNP also senses an opportunity to overtake Labour by becoming the most effective opponents to the Tories at a time when the official opposition is in disarray and has yet to elect a replacement for Ed Miliband. The SNP says its determination to undermine the Conservative leadership is driven by the need to implement more “progressive” policies across the UK and to combat austerity.
Critics of the Nationalists, however, believe their tactics are more about building up resentment elsewhere in the UK.
Last night, the Conservatives said the SNP were taking part in a “shameless and deceitful game” that would create division and increase the likelihood of Scottish independence.
When the House of Commons returns after the summer recess, the SNP will target two big votes.
One issue on the SNP’s agenda relates to Cameron’s controversial plans for welfare reforms – in particular the proposal to restrict tax credit payments for low paid workers to their first two children. The government is working on exemptions to the proposal so that mothers who have multiple births or become pregnant with a third child as a result of rape are not excluded from the benefit. The SNP has expressed fury at the idea that the victim of a sex attack would have to somehow prove to the authorities that she had been raped in order to claim tax credit for a third child.
A senior SNP source told Scotland on Sunday: “An extremely serious matter that must be addressed by the government is the one Angus Robertson [the SNP’s Westminster leader] raised at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday – the appalling need for women who have had a third child as a result of rape to have to prove this to the Department of Work and Pensions in order to qualify for tax credits.”
September will also see Cameron renew his battle with the Eurosceptic wing of his party when the issue of “purdah” rules leading up to the EU referendum comes to the fore again. These typically forbid governments from making announcements in a period before an important national vote. Cameron is proposing to relax the rules, a move which has angered Eurosceptics in his party.
A recent bid to thwart Cameron was supported by 27 Conservative MPs, who voted with the SNP on an amendment to impose a period of purdah. The SNP and Tory rebels failed in their objective because Labour abstained on the issue. The issue will resurface when Commons returns in September and MPs are given the chance to vote on it again in the next stage of the parliamentary process.
The SNP source said: “One issue where 27 Tory MPs rebelled last month – but where the government escaped defeat thanks to Labour abstaining – was scrapping purdah rules before the EU referendum. This will come back to the Commons again in September, and we will do everything we can to help build a united opposition then.”
The SNP source said the party could build on the successes it had achieved already. Last week saw plans to relax the English and Welsh fox-hunting ban delayed as a result of SNP opposition.
The government’s plans for English Votes for English Laws (Evel) and its proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act have also had to be delayed through a lack of parliamentary support.
“Already, in just two months, we have inflicted four defeats on the Tories. Scrapping the Human Rights Act has been kicked into the long grass, and we want to keep it there,” the SNP source said. “The very real possibility that the EU referendum could have been on the same day as the Scottish Parliament election has been stopped. The dogs breakfast of English Votes for English Laws had to be taken away instead of imposed before the summer recess. And, of course, as part of our progressive alliance we stopped the fox hunting ban being relaxed south of the Border.
“Some of these issues are of particular interest to Scotland, some to England and Wales, and some are UK-wide issues. And that reflects the breadth of our approach and commitment to pursuing progressive politics.
“There will be more such issues where we can successfully challenge and defeat the government in the months and years ahead – not least because our soundings are that the four successes already achieved have emboldened Tory MPs who are unhappy in a range of different areas.”
Last night Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “It’s become ever more evident that the SNP aren’t interested in standing up for the people who voted for them. They’d rather cause deliberate division and rile the rest of the UK in the hope this stokes up enough resentment, thus making separation more likely. That is a shameless and deceitful game.”