The government of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher suffered a humiliating defeat Monday, when its plan to introduce unrestricted Sunday shopping was rejected by the House of Commons. The outcome, which came as a surprise to the prime minister, was by a slim margin of 14 votes.
Mrs. Thatcher and her ministers had hoped to alter Britain's laws to allow for Sunday opening of shops and stores, but they ran into a heavy tide of opposition from Labour and Conservative Party members, trade unions, and many owners of stores both large and small.
The vote raises embarrassing questions about whether the prime minister's is in touch with grass-roots opinion within her own party. Many of her own party members in Parliament tried to dissuade her from pressing ahead with legislation that seemed unpopular and held out no obvious political return.
The Labour Party opposition leader, Neil Kinnock, said the result showed the government's lack of understanding of the mood of the country.
The government defeat, according to Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, who sponsored the bill, means that no new attempt to change the law restricting Sunday shopping will be made in the present Parliament, which has two years to go.
Under existing law, shops generally are forbidden to open on Sunday, except to sell a list of items bewildering in its diversity and contradictions. For example, a shop can sell pornographic literature on Sunday, but it cannot sell a Bible. Any shopkeeper defying the law can be fined up to 1,000 ($1,480).
The aim of the proposed law was to permit do-it-yourself outlets and some department stores to stay open for normal business on Sunday. But a formidable coalition of churches, trade unions representing shop workers, and the Labour Party opposition declared itself against the reforms.
Thatcher had hoped to achieve victory by a narrow margin. In fact, some 60 Conservative Party MPs failed to support her, together with all 14 Northern Ireland unionists (those favoring continued ties between that province and Britain) in the Parliament.
The 14-vote defeat means that if the unionists had abstained, the vote would have been deadlocked and the bill could have been saved by the Speaker of the House of Common's tie-breaking vote. The speaker is obliged to vote in favor of the government.
Analysts say such strong defiance suggests that, on this issue at least, Prime Minister Thatcher's authority in Parliament is much less than it used to be.
One result of the defeat is likely to be an increase in illegal Sunday business by firms especially eager to open their doors to shoppers. Do-it-yourself trade outlets and the garden shops are expected to defy the old law and run the risk of being fined.
The government faces two difficult by-elections in the near future, and its humiliation at the hands of the Labour Party opposition and its own party rebels comes at a bad moment.