It will be like no other Parliament in history. This afternoon, Jacob Rees-Mogg is expected to move a motion allowing for a virtual Commons and Lords. Valerie Vaz, his Shadow, will be in her front-bench place, but the Chamber won’t be full.
The motion will pass – and, at Prime Minister’s Questions tomorrow, Keir Starmer will apparently appear via video link, as may Dominic Raab, standing in for the Prime Minister. It isn’t yet clear whether the new Commons proceedings will settle down to be wholly or only partly virtual.
Rees-Mogg wrote yesterday that up to 50 MPs will be allowed into the chamber, and that as many as 120 at any one time may participate virtually. That’s the same figure that ConservativeHome quoted last week, based on the maximum number of MPs that the technology for transmission can cope with, at least at the moment.
The Commons Leader pointed out that there will be no waving of order papers, no heckling (we presume), and sought to prepare the public for systems crashing or dodgy internet connections. And it appears that there will be no votes until next week at the earliest.
This is crucial. Some will feel that we have all got by perfectly well without MPs doing their stuff in the chamber. But one of the main purposes of the legislature is to hold the executive to account. It has been missed during recent weeks, not least as part of the wider debate about the lockdown’s future.
This site may be wrong in expecting the Commons, as a whole, to push gradually for an easing of the lockdown – as the weeks grind on, voters see redundancies and business closure replacing home working and furloughs in larger numbers, the polls move and MPs reflect their constituents’ anxieties.
Any such mood – or any other – inevitably means votes, at least if Parliament is to function authentically, and it will be worth watching out for ingenious amendments to Bills, backbench motions, and whatever Starmer chooses to do with Opposition Day motions.
But not yet. It looks as though Parliament will be feeling its way this week to whatever its new normal may turn out to be. That gives Ministers a week longer to prepare plans to relax the lockdown gradually and help resolve their internal debate about when this should happen and how.
Which means that any pressure on the Government to change course can’t build until next week at the earliest. The week after that scarcely counts: Parliament will sit for only two days before rising on Wednesday May 6. Friday May 8 sees the first of next month’s two bank holidays.
So those who back an immediate lifting of the lockdown shouldn’t expect too much until Parliament then returns again on May 11. By then, we expect that Boris Johnson will have laid out some tentative easing, seeking to lift restrictions enough to revive the economy without also whipping up a second wave and thus swamping the NHS.
And keeping ahead of public opinion as he does so. The heavy briefing of the last couple of days looks designed to dampen down any expectations of a big-scale relaxation – not only because there won’t be one, but because Minister want to stick to their triple theme: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.