What a thin, diminished spectacle the House of Commons presented on Monday afternoon. A junior minister, Edward Argar, was sent to make the case for the Health Protection (Corona Virus) Regulations England.
Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, was required to front the altogether more important daily press conference at Number Ten, an institution which within a few weeks has come to take precedence over Parliament.
Argar addressed an empty Chamber. If it had been full, MPs could have tried to puncture his deliberately dull, bureaucratic justifications for the lockdown, and spectators could have seen whether he was carrying the House with him, or whether, on the contrary, he was antagonising it.
But a remote House cannot make its presence felt. In all but a technical sense, this experiment looks like a failure which should be ended as soon as possible.
Because of the rules on social distancing, Argar proceeded on his way uninterrupted, and those of us watching him on television had no idea what scores of MPs, scattered like so many prisoners in their twee constituency homes rather than gathered together in the cockpit of the nation, were collectively making of his performance.
Justin Madders, replying from the Opposition front bench, said “a couple of hours’ debate weeks after the regulations were introduced cannot be sufficient”.
At this a loud “hear hear” could be heard, which sounded as if it was uttered by Sir Charles Walker (Con, Broxbourne), one of the handful of backbenchers who were actually in the House.
Madders remarked that “the two-metre rule” does not appear in the regulations, and wondered, “Is it enforceable?”
Sir Graham Brady (Con, Altrincham and Sale), chairman of the 1922 Committee and like Walker actually present, said people had been prepared to comply “voluntarily” with the regulations: “it hasn’t been policing in the main”.
He added that “in many cases the public has been a little too willing to stay at home” and employers have had difficulty getting workers back who are needed.
Brady reckoned it was much better the response to the virus continued to be “done through a conversation with the British people” than than by enforcing “arbitrary rules”.
But he ended by saying it was “deeply regrettable” that the end of the current 21-day period of regulations should fall this Thursday, when the Commons will not be sitting. Parliament has been written out of the script.
Walker was the next Conservative speaker. He warned that if a million of Britain’s 5.9 million privately owned businesses go under, “we will unleash a tidal wave of human misery”.
So we need “a frank, open and honest debate about the ethics of trading lives tomorrow to save lives today”.
Steve Baker (Con, Wycombe), speaking by video link, said the rules were necessary, the government had made the right call and people must obey the law.
But he proceeded to argue that the regulations might well be against the law, for does not Blackstone warn against false imprisonment and physical restraint?
How one longed for the House to be full, so one could see whether it regarded Baker as a crank, or as a man who spoke for England.
He protested that “people have been accused of not sweating properly when bicycling”, and such conduct by the police is “absurd and wrong”.
Brady, Walker and Baker voiced the deep misgivings of Conservative MPs, but one could not say they embarrassed the Government.
For in order to be embarrassed, it is necessary to be present, and this Government has instead embraced with fervour the new technique of rule by Downing Street press conference.