What an eerie, echoing, unnatural sight the House of Commons presented. This first sitting since Easter, and first to conform to the rules of social distancing, felt like, indeed was, a gross diminution of our body politic.
A mere handful of MPs were scattered at even intervals through the Chamber. How one longed for the crowds, the noise, the mingled wit and hooliganism, the unpredictable temper, the risk for the great that they could be made to look like fools, the chance for the obscure to shine, which should attend a significant parliamentary occasion.
The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, communicated an irreproachable conscientiousness as he announced in a hoarse and solemn tone that he would allow, in these “exceptional and unprecedented circumstances”, a motion to be taken without notice.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, rose to move the motion. One could not help noticing the usually immaculate hair at the back of his head was sticking up in a manner reminiscent of one of Somerset’s most unruly haystacks.
His barber must been forced to shut up shop during the lockdown, but here was an ominous portent, as if the very hairs on his head protested at what he was doing.
He sought to comfort the House by observing that things are not as bad as in 1349, when the Black Death meant the parliamentary session was cancelled.
A few moments before, he had remarked with feeling that the Commons is not “a frippery, a bauble on the British Constitution. It is the British Constitution.”
But the Commons will have, during the lockdown, to operate for the most part virtually, members speaking to each other from screens, rather than across the same room, with a great loss of directness and spontaneity.
John Spellar (Lab, Warley) said the daily press conferences during the crisis are not “getting to the heart of the issues”, and it is the Commons which in normal times has the most sustained opportunities to scrutinise ministers and to extract answers from them.
Liam Fox (Con, North Somerset) remarked that “the only thing that brings any fear to ministers is the unknown supplementary question”, not the previous, written question to which officials have had time to draft a safe reply.
The British people have submitted with sheep-like docility to the gross encroachments on our ancient liberties required by the lockdown, and so today did MPs. But one trusts that within a short time, all will exclaim: “Enough is enough!”