Impressions be damned: governance is even more important
Parliament will return from its Easter recess on Monday to allow MPs to make tributes to the late Duke of Edinburgh. It is right that they can do so. Most, however, will continue to dial in via videoconferencing; few will be in the chamber. That is no longer right.
Politics is an intensely human business and proximity is power. One reason that the government has been able to act as if there is no parliament is because, for practical purposes, there is no parliament – which is to say that the Commons and Lords are about a lot more than speeches, votes and committees. To work properly, they need people to be able to talk to each other informally; to chat, to take the mood of MPs’ response to a proposal, to plan and plot, to lobby, to speculate. All that chatter oils the workings of what gets through, what gets amended and what gets dropped; it puts ministers under pressure, it creates momentum for change. None of this is happening.
And this is unfortunate because it plays to an already worrying default level for intolerance of criticism and opposition, and inclination towards government-by-decree. If the only channels for making concerns felt are the hard, formal ones of public speeches and votes, MPs on the government side will feel less inclined to rock the boat. Of course, these shouldn’t be the only channels: the whips in particular should be feeding disquiet back but even if they are trying their best, distance again matters. A quick word in the tea room or voting lobby is a lot easier than picking up a phone, especially if the concern is about style and tone rather than a specific issue.
It also matters in the atmosphere of Westminster. I have little doubt it’s a quiet, empty place at the moment which makes life far easier for the government. Being criticised by a handful of MPs in the chamber, or a series of faces on a screen is a wholly different experience from 200 baying opponents cat-calling an inadequate answer or thundering applause as their front-bench spokesman skewers your proposal, while an echoing, embarrassed silence drifts down from behind you. Passion needs numbers; it needs an audience.
You might well say that’s all very well but it wouldn’t change anything: the government has a big majority, on top of which it’s generally had opposition support for its plans, though that has now likely come to an end with the Covid passport scheme (in which case you might still say it doesn’t matter because opposition still finds a way). But I’d say no, we can’t know that people would have acted the same and in any case, this is about how parliament operates going forward, where decisions remain unknown.
A better objection would be that a full return of MPs (and presumably, peers) to Westminster would send completely the wrong message about social distancing and the anti-Covid strategy. And it would. But there are times when exceptions do need to be made and in that respect, parliament, like schools, needs to meet in person. Saying that will be unpopular and look as if MPs are claiming that they’re better, more necessary and more important than anyone else. But the fact is, while they’re not better, their job does matter in a way few others do and cannot be done remotely to anything like the same level.
And a line has to be drawn somewhere. Until recently, the vaccination program was the road out of the crisis. In other words, we’d be back to normal by the summer. Foreign travel might have to be different – the scale of cases outside the UK (around three-quarters of a million identified cases per day) means harmful new variants are likely to develop – but Covid restrictions in the UK would be gone. That no longer seems a safe assumption. Scientists have been talking, rather pessimistically, about restrictions next winter for a while despite the breadth of the coverage of the vaccination program and the clear effect it’s having on case numbers and serious illnesses from Covid. However, when ministers start talking about Covid passports for general use (rather than one-off large scale events), that’s not going to be some temporary system; it’s a change to our normal way of life and needs serious scrutiny.
Which is why I’d question quite how bad the optics would be. For it to be workable, the whole of the Westminster Village, from MPs to canteen staff to lobby correspondents to police, would need regular tests but there’s the capacity for that. Perhaps it would need priority vaccinations; if so, do it. When hundreds of thousands are being applied every day, it wouldn’t be a drain. Many other people have to go to their place of work and the country is opening up again anyway (and a return to Westminster couldn’t happen overnight anyway).
One other point. In the absence of a parliament holding the government to account, people naturally turn to the courts. This is not ideal. While the courts should obviously hold the government to account on matters of law, there’s a grey area involving the clash of rights and what counts as proportionate measures. These are political as much as judicial matters and it would be much better if they were decided, or at least debated, by the people’s elected representatives rather than risk politicising the judiciary.
In theory, it wouldn’t make a difference. Courts could still rule on secondary legislation whether or not parliament has had a say, and they couldn’t override any primary legislation. However, in practice, I think the courts would be less inclined to get involved if the other parts of the political system were clearly operating effectively and the regulations had been subject to much clearer democratic oversight.
But for all that, I don’t expect Westminster to return before September and maybe not until much later still. The confluence of government interest and easy arguments about public safety and ‘setting the right example’ makes it far too easy to keep MPs away. That has to be challenged, and the sooner the better.