Last month, we looked at some of the reasons why – beyond cynical claims about Boris Johnson needing backup at Prime Minister’s Questions – the Government is so keen to resume physical sittings of the House of Commons.
Whilst Jacob Rees-Mogg is undoubtedly a parliamentary traditionalist (and that is no bad thing), that was far from the whole of the case.
The so-called ‘Virtual Commons’ simply can’t fulfil all the functions of the proper one. Debates are harder to conduct and less interactive; mechanisms such as points of order and supplementary questions impossible; and the need to schedule MPs into a Zoom called robbed them of the ability to respond to developments spontaneously.
Even Jess Philips, one of those who has been lambasting the new, socially-distanced voting queue on Twitter, wrote in the Independent about how much she disliked the virtual setup.
Business managers also reportedly had concerns about the setup delaying legislation at a time when the Government needs to both try and carry forward its regular programme whilst also legislating for the fight against Covid-19, whilst others felt that it would undermine ministers’ efforts to get schools to re-open if Parliament were so visibly unwilling to do the same.
All of these are good reasons to try to return to the status quo ante as soon as possible. But it increasingly looks as if the Government might have misjudged the moment.
Alok Sharma falling ill and having to self-isolate was a visible reminder of why Parliament had been working remotely in the first place. But even worse, under ministers’ own plans for ‘track-and-trace’ many MPs would have been forced to self-isolate as a result. And prior to Johnson’s u-turn on proxy voting, this would have disenfranchised them.
Whatever the democratic deficiencies of virtual sittings, they would surely not have outweighed those created by preventing a substantial number of vulnerable MPs for doing their jobs for so long as pandemic conditions endure. In fact, Rees-Mogg may come under more pressure on this front, because without virtual participation it’s hard to see how they are to participate in debates.
Even with that resolved, the new system may throw up new problems. Indeed, as a sceptic of reform the Leader of the House really ought to expect it to.
For example, Stephen Bush has set out how it potentially increases the power of Tory backbenchers, because ministers simply cannot spare the time needed to vote under the current arrangements and will need to be paired more often. This may outweigh the improved party-management which might be expected to accrue from having MPs back within reach of the whips, rather than out in their WhatsApp silos.
Other kinks will doubtles reveal themselves over the next few weeks. They may all be surmountable. But there is a danger that, by allowing himself and his system to be caricatured as impractical and reactionary, Rees-Mogg ends up undermining the return of the proper system at the proper time.
He can afford to take his time. The Government has a comfortable majority, there are years until the next election, the shortcomings of virtual sittings were apparent even to non-traditionalists, and the conditions created by the pandemic are obviously exigent. There will be space to restore the proper order of things.
With a little less haste, obvious pitfalls such as the disenfranchising of shielding MPs might have been avoided. The Leader of the House owes it to himself, and the traditions he so rightly defends, not to trip over any more.