The virtual House of Commons, though better than nothing, is but a pale shadow of the real thing. Our nation is in danger, which makes parliamentary scrutiny vital, and the return of MPs to Westminster at the earliest opportunity essential.
Few fair-minded people will blame the Government for sometimes changing its mind about how to meet the crisis. But ministers must come to the House and explain what they are doing and why.
Daily Downing Street press conferences, however well conducted, are not a forum in which the arguments against what is being done can be fully aired and examined.
Such occasions carry with them an unpleasant hint of despotism: of a central power which brooks no effective opposition.
By being in the House on Wednesday, and exercising so skilfully his constitutional right to question the Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, subjected Boris Johnson to far more intense scrutiny than can occur at press conferences.
For the formation of public opinion, a free press is indispensable. But it is in the House of Commons that the Government can discover most quickly when it is running into danger, and what adjustments of tone and substance are needed in order to regain the support of its own MPs.
Free institutions uphold our liberties by telling the Government when it is going too far, or has got things wrong. Without them, as Alexis de Tocqueville saw, one ends up with a revolution, caused not only by the discontent of the ruled but by the ignorance of the rulers.
Here is how Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, made the case on Wednesday for an early return of MPs to Westminster:
“We see in this Parliament—in this House today—the ineffectiveness of scrutiny in comparison to when the House is operating in the normal way. We have no flexibility of questions. The questions are all listed in advance, with no ability for people to bob, to come in and to join in the debate; no cross-cutting of debate; and no ability to advance arguments or take them forward.
“We simply have a series of prepared statements made one after another. That is not the House of Commons doing its proper duty and playing its proper role of scrutiny of the Government.
“Then there is the other side of it: where are the Bill Committees? How are Bills progressing? What is happening to the legislative agenda that the Government were elected on in December? Or do we just ignore our constituents, ignore the voters and not get on with a proper democratic parliamentary system?
“The idea that our democratic system is not an essential one—is not the lifeblood of our nation and is not how the Government are held to account at a time of crisis—is one that is surprising. It is extraordinary that it should be held by Opposition Members; that they should not wish to be here, challenging the Government and holding them to account; and that they wish to hide behind a veneer of virtual Parliament, so that legislation is not progressed with…
“What we do is essential. Holding the Government to account is essential and delivering on manifesto promises is also essential, and that is what I hope we shall be able to do after we come back from the Whitsun recess, in line with what is happening in other parts of the country.
“The intention is for schools to go back: how can we say to our schoolchildren, ‘You’re safe going back’—some of them—but we are not? How can we hide away while schoolchildren are going back? Is that the right message to give to our constituents?
“Are we a people set apart, a special class who are exempt from what the rest of the country is doing? No, we are not. We are the leaders of our nation, and we have a responsibility. That responsibility falls on us to come back, but we can observe social distancing.
“We can look at the Chamber as it is set out. We can look at the Division Lobbies that have been arranged by you, Mr Speaker, to make sure that the Clerks are safe and that Members are safe. That is the right way for us to proceed, so that there is proper democratic scrutiny and legislation may be brought forward in accordance with the mandate that the British people gave us.
“Stay at home, work from home if you can. We in reality cannot and that is why we ought to be coming back.”