The role and significance of the opposition

Opposition parties are not in a strong position to hold the government to account in Parliament unless its majority is small. Even a leader of the opposition who is judged to be an effective performer in the Commons, such as William Hague in the period of Tony Blair's first government, may make little real impression on the general public, as his defeat in the 2001 general election showed. Opposition leaders may choose instead to concentrate on attacking the government through the media, where they reach a larger audience. They have a constant dilemma in that they need to criticise ministers, while also projecting themselves in a statesmanlike light as a government in waiting. The leader of the opposition does, however, have certain opportunities to hold the government to account. He or she takes the leading role in responding to the government programme, as set out in the annual Queen's speech, and replies to the Chancellor of the Exchequer's budget speech.

Opposition Days

The opposition parties are allocated 20 days a year to propose subjects for debate. Of these, 17 days are at the disposal of the leader of the official opposition — the largest opposition party — leaving the other 3 days to the second-largest opposition party. The SNP, for example, used its allocation in November 2015 to instigate debates on the Trident nuclear defence system, to which they are strongly opposed, and on the closure of HMRC offices. These occasions are of only symbolic importance, allowing opposition parties to register their views on aspects of government policy. The government will usually table an amendment to the opposition motion, cancelling it out by commending its own policy. With an in-built majority it will usually have no difficulty in carrying the amendment.

Assistance is available to help opposition parties carry out their parliamentary business, in the form of 'Short money'. The fund also provides help with the running costs of the leader of the opposition's office. The purpose of Short money is to compensate for the fact that, unlike the government, opposition parties do not have access to support from the civil service. It is supposed to be spent on policy research and the salaries of staff who work for the opposition in Parliament, rather than in their party headquarters. The Conservative government cut the amount available after the 2015 general election, on the grounds that opposition parties should make sacrifices at a time when Whitehall departments' funding was being reduced.