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Today’s PMQs was about as much use as a game of cricket where the batsman does not actually have to stand at the crease and face the bowling.

There was no danger the Prime Minister would lose his wicket or get hit.

Boris Johnson was not there. He appeared instead on a screen, and announced that in order to comply with the rules for dealing with the pandemic he is holding “virtual meetings” and performing “virtual duties”.

An indispensable quality of the Commons is that it is dangerous. There is nowhere for the minister to hide.

Within a second or two, he or she can suffer grievous embarrassment, by failing to make a proper case for whatever the Government is doing.

No vote has yet been lost, but already the House has been lost. The minister’s enemies are laughing and jeering, the minister’s friends have fallen silent and look glum.

It is bad enough to have a Chamber that is almost empty. Already in these circumstances it is far harder to see the ebb and flow of opinion.

Already the Opposition’s chances of holding the Government to account are diminished. There is no live audience of backbenchers to see how the Prime Minister is performing, to register and magnify his triumphs and disasters, to applaud or to stab him in the back.

And this makes the whole ritual pointless for the spectators too, including those watching on television. The drama is fled, and now we have lost the PM too.

Even under normal circumstances, the PM may succeed for a time in making things dull, by playing the deadest of dead bats to every delivery.

But when the Chamber is full for PMQs such an approach can seldom be sustained for long. The Government’s supporters demand something to cheer, and so do the Opposition benches.

A heckle, a joke, a fleeting intervention puts the PM on the spot, lights up the Chamber, prompts hundreds of conversations between the close-packed MPs and makes the reputation of whoever intervened.

Sir Keir Starmer did his best with Johnson’s observation earlier this week that devolution has been “a disaster”. According to Sir Keir, “Devolution is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government.”

Johnson retorted that devolution is unquestionably a disaster when it means the SNP constantly campaigning for the break up of the United Kingdom.

In a later answer, the Prime Minister spoke at such length about the proposal of the SNP, immediately after independence, to make “a massive surrender of power straight back to Brussels”, that the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, cut him off.

The Speaker was right. It was impossible to go on listening to this stuff. The ability of the Commons to hold the Government to account has been dreadfully diminished by the pandemic, and will remain diminished until the Chamber is once more full.

33 comments for: Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: The Commons has lost its power to hold the absent Johnson to account

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