There is such a surreal symmetry to the latest row between the Government and the parliamentary authorities that if it appeared in fiction it would feel rather contrived.
Having previously been accused of trying to bypass the legislature by proroguing Parliament, this ministry is apparently now trying to drag MPs back into Westminster against their will.
That at least is the tone of much of the press coverage following Jacob Rees-Mogg’s declaration in the Chamber that he hoped not to extend the special provisions allowing for a ‘virtual Parliament’ beyond the upcoming recess, which ends in June. He was rebuked by the Speaker, who insisted that the Commons would operate in line with Public Health England’s advice.
What’s the rush to get the Commons sitting again? Cynics suggest that the Prime Minister feels he might fare better at PMQs with the usual chorus of loyal MPs behind him, but Rees-Mogg has been clear that appropriate social distancing will remain in place. Others suspect it may simply be that the Leader of the House, a traditionalist, wishes to avoid normalising virtual participation in the Commons.
But there are also legitimate grounds for concern about how effective the current arrangements really. As Sir John Redwood pointed out in a recent piece, various elements of normal procedure, including interventions, questions to ministers, and points of order, are currently impossible or restricted.
The need to schedule people in to a limited-capacity Chamber or a Zoom call has robbed the Commons of much spontaneity, and four hours of pre-programmed and isolated speeches are a pale shadow of a proper second reading debate.
Nor is the problem merely one of scrutiny. According to Rees-Mogg, the new measures have created bottlenecks which are making it extremely difficult for the Government to get its legislative agenda, comprising both its manifesto commitments and emergency pandemic responses, through the Commons.
Given the amount of concern at the onset of the crisis about the need for proper scrutiny of the various emergency provisions being introduced to handle Covid-19, it seems reasonable to be concerned about whether the current jury-rigged arrangements are fit to be more than a very temporary stop-gap if they are forcing ministers to rely on emergency mechanisms – the use of which has been hotly contested – to stay on top of the crisis.
Such worries are not restricted to unabashed traditionalists, either. Jess Phillips, writing recently in the Independent, also speaks of how much she ‘hates’ the virtual parliament and the barriers it erects to effective scrutiny.
Beyond that, Rees-Mogg also wants Parliament to set an example at a time when the Government is trying to encourage people who can do so safely to return to work. It will not help ministers’ efforts to re-open schools and reactivate the economy, this reasoning runs, if MPs are refusing to return to their own workplace. Spurring people to work whilst Parliament continues to operate remotely also risks giving the potentially toxic impression that there’s one rule for the governed and another for the government.
But there is a danger that an over-hasty return could backfire. The striking story of the Prime Minister himself falling seriously ill helped to make Britain one of the most pro-lockdown countries anywhere. Another spate of highly-visible cases in the House could make it harder than ever to persuade Brits to leave theirs.
Yet government sources insist that Parliament can resume business in a Covid-responsible manner. It may create new bottlenecks – divisions would certainly take longer – but the upside would be increased capacity, improved scrutiny, and reducing the routine use of emergency powers.