Lockdown has had an effect on all aspects of British life, with everybody having to make sacrifices to get through the present crisis. Workplaces around the country have been forced to adapt so as to allow their employees to work from home, with the internet playing a key role in this. Parliament is no exception, with MPs being forced to debate issues online rather than in the crowded House of Commons chamber.
Unsurprisingly, some parliamentarians are less technologically literate than others which has caused problems from time to time. However, one area of parliamentary process which has benefitted from the lack of MPs in the Commons is Prime Minister’s Questions. The main mechanism for parliamentary scrutiny has become more of an excuse for theatre and attention-seeking in recent years, but lockdown has allowed reasoned debate to take place.
In the absence of the jingoistic shrieking and hollering which punctuated exchanges between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer has been able to calmly dissect the government’s policies during these sessions. The unusual silence from the backbenches means attention is on the substance of debate, preventing the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition from deflecting attacks with cheap jibes at the other’s party.
Sir Keir has so far attempted to hold the government to account at PMQs by methodically picking apart government advice towards care homes, the delayed response to the virus, and asking “how on earth did it come to this?”, as Britain’s death toll became the highest in Europe last week. His background as a lawyer is evident in his methodical approach, which is refreshing to the neutral observer compared to the past years of needless melodrama.
The government clearly feels that it is being held to account more effectively during lockdown as leading figures are rushing to recall MPs to the chamber so that the Prime Minister will have an easier ride in future instalments of PMQs. Jacob Rees-Mogg is calling on MPs to ‘set an example’ to the workforce by returning to the Commons, but one has to wonder if there are political motivations for the government’s desire to fill Parliament.
The fact that the government has reservations about PMQs in its current form shows that it has been effective in holding the Prime Minister to account, and has therefore been a success. Realistically there is next to no chance that PMQs will be held in a half-empty chamber in future, but the effectiveness of these sessions may act as a lesson to MPs in how to conduct themselves during debates.
Parliamentarians may come to the conclusion that the legislative system is better served when they act responsibly, allowing debate and scrutiny to take place without vitriol being hurled from the backbenches. It will always be tempting for MPs from the governing party to support their Prime Minister by drawing attention away from the substance of debate, but if Opposition parties refuse to engage in this then reasoned debate can be allowed to take place.
We have surely moved past the time when it is acceptable for our legislative chamber to be the setting for childish, egotistical games, and lockdown has given us a glimpse into how efficient our system can be. The prerogative is now with MPs from all parties to ensure that Parliament does not return to being a farce once a semblance of normality resumes.
In a difficult time for the country and its people, we have been given an opportunity to improve a central pillar of our democracy. It is important that we do not allow this chance to elude us.
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