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What is the role of the Opposition in the UK Parliament?

Her Majesty’s Opposition in the UK Parliament wants to present itself as a Government in waiting.

It does this mostly through the media and by campaigning in the constituencies but Parliament is also an important forum for this.

The Features of Her Majesty’s Opposition

  • The largest party is designated as the Official Opposition and its frontbench MPs have the right to speak first in reply to Government ministers. It therefore play a role in criticising Government policy for example in reply to Ministerial statements and debates on legislation.
  • It proposes motions and amendments to legislation and is able to get these debated. Other opposition parties are also able to criticise the government and move amendments.
  • In their work in Parliament the opposition parties receive public funding (called Short money after the Leader of the House who introduced it in the 1970s.) This is to support research on topics and provide some balance in resources against the Government that has the whole of the civil service to help it. 
  • The problem for the Opposition is that it will never win any of these votes and get any of its amendments to legislation agreed unless there is a serious revolt by Government backbenchers.
  • There are some instances where Government and Opposition broadly agree on a policy such as air strikes on ISIS in Iraq and so the Opposition helps to create a national consensus and legitimise a policy.
  • The Opposition could, if it wanted to, disrupt the Government’s business by procedural devices such as raising points of order.  In order to ensure the smooth running of Parliament though, Government may make minor concessions such as slight changes to legislation and more time to discuss amendments.
  • Parliament provides the setting for the general debate between Government and Opposition that takes place between general elections. This helps to establish the credibility of the Opposition. 
  • Her Majesty’s Opposition is allowed a few days on which it chooses the topic for debate and will select topics on which it thinks the Government is weak or on which it has developed new policies with the hope of getting publicity in the media.  The main media outlets have Westminster correspondents.
  • Although there is a UK Parliament channel, Prime Ministers’ Questions (PMQs) is the only part of the Parliamentary debate that is regularly shown on the media. Soundbites appear in news bulletins and on social media. This helps to profile the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the public mind. 
  • Her Majesty’s Opposition front-bench spokespersons gain experience through Parliamentary debate. They are also more likely to be interviewed by the media because of their position.