Tory ministers have been accused of trying to create a “one-party state” over plans to slash taxpayer funding to Opposition parties at Westminster.
In a series of heated exchanges in the Commons, Labour and Lib Dem MPs lined up to attack George Osborne’s proposed 19% cut in ‘Short Money’ and policy development grants used to help scrutinise the Government.
Following an outcry among Labour and the SNP – as well as smaller parties like the DUP, SDLP, Greens and Plaid Cymru – Cabinet Office minister John Penrose confirmed that a “consultation” would now take place “shortly” on the plans.
As revealed by HuffPost UK this week, the Government has decided that it will consult on the proposal to cut and then freeze the payments to the opposition parties for the rest of the Parliament.
The consultation, which surprised those who felt the Chancellor’s move was a fait accomplit when buried in the Autumn Statement last year, paves the way for a possible rethink of the cuts.
But Labour MPs slammed the Government for trying to slash support for rival parties at a time when special advisers in Whitehall had increased for the Tories, with one aide to George Osborne getting a 42% rise in salary.
Shadow equalities minister Cat Smith added that the Tories’ claims to be a One Nation party were being exposed.
"The Minister is desperately trying, and failing, to justify the 19% cut to the Short money in the context of a Trade Union Bill that takes funds from the Labour party, of stuffing up the House of Lords and of changes to the electoral register and general election boundaries.
"Will he now admit that the so-called one nation party is trying to create a one-party nation?"
In case the Government had not got the message, Lib Dem Tom Brake – a former minister in the Lib-Con Coalition – added the Government was in danger of looking like “a one party state Robert Mugabe would be proud of”.
"The Conservatives, have form when it comes to rigging the electoral playing field," he said. "The Conservatives may have broken the law by spending more than the legal limit at by-elections. They are ramming through one-sided changes in the funding of political parties, while leaving in place their ability to raise huge sums from hedge fund managers.
"Now they intend to slash the Short money which ensures that Opposition parties can hold Governments to account. Can the Minister guarantee that the cuts will not be the final chapter in our transition from a multi-party state to a one-party state in which Robert Mugabe would be at home?"
Mr Penrose replied: "I do not know where to start in trying to rebut some of the absurd assumptions in that question, but I think that the short answer to all of them is “No.”
Labour veteran David Winnick said the Conservatives’ lack of consultation over the Osborne plan when taken with other attacks on Labour funding, such as the loss of £8m in the Trade Union Bill, smacked of a move 'towards a one party state’.
"The measure he has announced will be seen, despite all his denials, as sheer spite against the Opposition parties, particularly the main Opposition party. The Government should be thoroughly ashamed of taking such a measure together with others to introduce, as was rightly said, a one-party state."
DUP leader Nigel Dodds repeated his own call for a rethink today.
Mr Penrose dismissed the claims and said: “The public have had several years of belt-tightening…they will judge politicians extremely harshly if we are not willing to do our bit”.
He insisted that Short Money funding had increased by 50% from £6m to £9m over the last Parliament and without change would rise further.
“The country will not understand why politicians should be exempt from the effects of dealing with the financial deficit,” he said.
The SNP’s Patrick Grady said opposition funding will be reduced whilst "government is growing, special advisers is growing, the House of Lords is growing…one rule for Tory cronies and another for everyone else".
Tory MP Bernard Jenkin announced that his own Public Administration Select Committee would now launch an inquiry into the Short Money issue and warned the Government had handled the matter “in a clumsy matter “ and that some believed “the agenda behind this change is rather more political” than practical.
And Labour’s Barry Sheerman hinted that Tory rebels would join the Opposition in voting against the 19% cut if it went ahead, stating “reasonable people would not give him a majority”.
Labour's Shadow Leader of the Commons lambasted the cuts as "shabby", "tawdry" and "downright cynical", and claimed that the consultation would be published on Friday, when the Commons broke up for February half-term recess.
Mr Penrose said that "informed discussions" between all the parties had taken place, and "further more formal consultations on short money" would take place once the consultation document was published "shortly".
However, UKIP MP Douglas Carswell said that cash for Parliamentary advisers was a waste of money in the modern age.
"We live in a world where Google is at our fingertips, so we do not need researchers. We also have Twitter and blogs so we do not need a whole department of press officers," he said to the minister.
"Does he agree that the public will resent using public money to pay for Spads and shadow special advisers, who have watched too much of “The West Wing”, to sit in Portcullis House at public expense?"