ConservativeHome readers and Tory Brexiteers had a bellyful of the Commons during the last Parliament. It gave as much as they could stomach, and more, of Dominic Grieve, Jo Swinson, Oliver Letwin, Anna Soubry et al. And the public more widely is never likely to put MPs at the top of its popularity list.
Hence the lack of voter demand for the Commons to sit again, which complements the strength of public support for the lockdown to carry on, at least at the moment.
None the less, Parliament is needed back urgently. The reason is not, repeat not, so that MPs and peers can launch a running enquiry into the past – that’s to say, how previous governments handled preparations for a pandemic, and this government dealt with the outbreak of this one.
(Though while we’re on that subject, it’s plain, as today’s news helps to confirm, that a strategy which assumed the building of herd immunity would never march in step with a one that prioritised the protection of the NHS, and that politicians of all recent governments were ready to fight the wrong war.)
At any rate, the past can wait until the inevitable inquiry. What matters much more now is the present – and future – when some are dying alone in hospital, with no family member at their bedside to comfort them; there are growing problems in care homes, and when NHS staff and other frontline workers are at risk.
Furthermore, very many people, though alive and healthy, have lost their jobs, or are going broke – if they haven’t done so already. That there is a trade-off between the short-term needs of the NHS and the medium-term needs of the economy, on which the NHS itself depends, is so obvious as to need no further spelling out.
When the crossover point comes at which costs outweigh the benefits is a matter of dispute. We suspect that it has not yet been reached, but this take, and anyone else’s estimate, is beside the main point – which is that only Ministers can take that decision, and they should be drawing up a strategy for ending lockdown when it comes.
We don’t envy them this duty: after all, it means wrestling with such known unknowns as how big any second wave of the virus will be, what real infection and death rates are, how the public will react to the inevitable easing-off, what the damage even a relatively brief lockdown will wreak on jobs, output and wages – and so on.
This would be difficult enough even were the Prime Minister in day-to-day charge. That he is not presents no constitutional problem of any significance: Dominic Raab has all the authority he requires. But practical questions remain about whether he will be able to exercise it, and for how long Boris Johnson will be absent.
We take it for granted that some MPs, when Parliament returns, will carry on as if there were no crisis at all (like some in the media: we pick up from our readers and others a growing disillusion with those seem simply to be having a go at Ministers as though it were business as usual).
Yes, Keir Starmer will manoeuvre for position; Momentum MPs will proclaim that the moment for socialism has come; the SNP will try to link everything to Scottish independence, and the Liberal Democrats will produce the oratorical equivalent of their notorious leaflet bar charts.
And, admittedly, some Tory MPs will lurch from complacency to panic and back again. But these are second-order matters. The first-order one is that we elect MPs not only to form an executive but to act as a legislature – and to hold that executive to account. No-one else can fulfill that role under Parliamentary government.
The Commons is due back on April 21. The lockdown will clearly not have been lifted by then – not even partially, it seems. But even if an end to a shutdown had begun by that date, it would clearly not encompass large gatherings of people. The chamber takes up to 650 MPs (just about).
Then there is the rest of the Parliamentary estate to think about, with its mass of staff, researchers, librarians, caterers, cleaners and so on. That means doing as much by virtual means as possible – as our columnist Robert Halfon argued last week.
Hitting the centre of an archery target is harder than landing an arrow in the outer rings. So it is with assembling a virtual Parliament. Bits of it are already happening. Some Select Committees are already holding evidence sessions by video link, for example.
Tabling and answering written questions is straightforward enough. The core difficulty, both technological and practical, is the chamber – oral questions and debates. ConHome is told that kit is now available that could deal with up to 120 participants online. The trick is to be able to take more.
It is to the credit of Lindsay Hoyle that he has pushed for a Virtual Parliament, and to Jacob Rees-Mogg that he has been keen to get the Commons back. The Executive must have been sorely tempted to push resumption back mañana. But the subject of our Moggcast is a Commons Man by instinct and temperament.
Furthermore, the Government knows well that it can’t get legislation through without the Commons sitting: the Finance Bill, for example, must be passed within 30 days of the Budget resolutions. So the Executive has a selfish, strategic and economic interest in Parliament sitting again. The elderly Lords in particular requires a virtual solution.
Some will worry that there is nothing so permanent as the temporary – and that it would suit government just fine to have 650 MPs separared from each other, away from the lobbies, corridors, tea rooms and bars than enable them to plot, hack and seek to frustrate whatever the Executive is up to.
And certainly, the virtual is no substitute for the real – any more than beaming in one’s family and friends by Skype or Zoom is a substitute for seeing them in the flesh. The apt heckle, the telling intervention, the reading of body language – all these are part of the art of the chamber.
But these are bridges that will be crossed when Parliament comes to them. For the moment, what matters most is getting it back, and if that means virtually, than so be it.
April 21st falls a week today, and can’t come a moment too soon. Were resumption due later and the technology in place, there would have been a clear case for a snappy prorogation, and Parliament starting up the very next day. The date at which lockdown should end is debatable. That MPs should be debating it is not.