A little respect
Hancock’s concessions represent a major victory for Graham Brady
At noon, Sir Graham Brady was in the chamber to hear the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, explain his reasoning for why neither Brady’s, nor any other, amendment would be called in the afternoon’s debate on the renewal of the Coronavirus Act. The Speaker judged that since the debate was only scheduled to last ninety minutes this was not long enough for an amendment of such significance to be properly considered. If it had been put then the consequences risked a “lack of clarity.”
Outside, in Parliament Square, a crowd of a hundred or so anti-lockdown protestors – proudly unmasked – had gathered to show their support for the Brady Bunch. They did not resemble the typical shire Conservative Association, but at the sight of Sir Desmond Swayne striding manfully towards his place of work, they could contain their joy no more, swooning and holding their arms out towards the honourable member for New Forest West in a manner that might remind those of Sir Desmond’s vintage of the teen adulation that once attended the late David Cassidy. Everything comes to those who wait.
But time had been the enemy in the chamber. Richard III lost his kingdom for want of a horse, and government by decree would continue for want of an extra few hours to debate its iniquity. Yet, as he sat on the back row of the benches listening to the Speaker, Brady, at least, did not look disconsolate. Was something cooking in the galley?
Before all would be revealed, the interval of PMQs unfolded. It was a repeat of previous weeks, in which the Leader of the Opposition stated his support for the government’s measures and then bemoaned the consequences of those measures. The prime minister seemed totally indifferent to Sir Keir Starmer’s line of attack. Nothing the former Director of Public Prosecutions could say was remotely as wounding as what the Speaker had just pronounced about the government’s “disregard for this House”.
But when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, arrived at the despatch box to open the Coronavirus Act renewal debate, he quickly got to nub about the deal that had been struck – after many days of private confabs with Sir Graham and Steve Baker. “I believe in the wisdom of this house as the cockpit of the nation,” Hancock proclaimed, referencing a sport that has been locked-down since 1835. Contrary to the excellent impression he has pulled off since March, he deeply believed in MPs properly scrutinising his proclamations.
Thus it was that parliament would henceforth be consulted “for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England or UK wide.” Hancock accepted that, “wherever possible we will hold votes before such regulations come into force but of course responding to the virus means that the govt must act with speed when required and we cannot hold up urgent regulations which are needed to control the virus and save lives.”
“I believe in the wisdom of this house as the cockpit of the nation,” Hancock proclaimed, referencing a sport that has been locked-down since 1835
First Brady and then Baker were on their feet to thank the health secretary for his good sense and fair dealing during what Sir Graham revealed were “the constructive conversations we’ve had over the last couple of weeks”. Diplomatically, mention was omitted that it had taken the mustering of a rebel army large enough to defeat its own government to bring about this outbreak of mutual consideration and bonhomie.
But what was the deal? Rebecca Long Bailey did not know, but she suspected it was a “gentlemen’s agreement.” Something about the way she said this suggested she could conceive of nothing more vile. Chris Bryant was also suspicious of what Tory MPs get up to together behind closed doors. “The concession the government has so-called given” the tribune of the Rhondda suggested, “is nothing. It’s not worth the paper it’s not been written on. We’d like to see something in writing about what this consultation with this house will really look like.”
For the DUP, Sammy Wilson made clear that he was also not the sort of chump who signs-up to anything before he had seen the small print. Hancock had spoken about introducing parliamentary scrutiny of “significant” national measures. But many of the regulations that did most to close down businesses were local or regional impositions. What say would MPs have on those? Who, indeed, was to judge which measures were significant?
Angriest of all was Charles Walker, so angry that he began to apologise for his temper before admitting that, actually, he was not sorry. “Ninety minutes, ninety minutes, to debate the renewal of an act that has fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between the state and citizens is not good enough!” he shook. “I need at some stage more than three minutes to discuss the fundamental hardships that are going on in my constituency.” What meaningful debate would be had on new regulations if no backbencher got more than three minutes to analyse their complexities? “It would nice, nice if this house was shown some respect” Walker concluded, smacking his rolled-up order paper on the bench as he sat down.
Respect (the lack thereof) was also the theme of Bernard Jenkin’s observations. He didn’t suggest that the prime minister lacked it towards the house. Nor the health secretary. But “there are some people around the prime minister who do not seem to value what parliament has to offer and what parliament’s function should actually be.” No names were offered, but everyone had an inkling.
This represented a lot of hostility and suspicion on what was supposed to be a great advance for parliamentary scrutiny. One problem has been trust and the health secretary’s difficulty in engendering it. No sooner had he claimed that the nature of the standing order prevented either himself or the Speaker from allowing MPs more than ninety minutes to debate the Act’s renewal, than the Speaker contradicted him, saying, “yes it could and I wold have agreed to it”.
But Hancock – who went out of his way to answer a large number of interventions during his speech – did concede that regulations enacted under the 1984 Public Health Act as well as the 2020 Coronavirus Act were to be subjected to advance parliamentary approval. This was a significant concession given that the 1984 legislation has been the primary enabler of Covid restrictions.
As to the gentlemen’s agreement Hancock had struck with Baker and Brady the omerta has been broken. Liable statutory instruments will be debated and voted on through the “made affirmative” procedure. This means a commencement date will be set in the future. But before which, the measure will be debated and voted on, thereby giving parliament the ability to refuse consent before the regulation would have come into force.
When the division was called, the concession proved insufficient to persuade seven Conservative MPs to vote for the Coronavirus Act’s renewal (Peter Bone, Philip Davies, Philip Hollobone, Esther McVey, Desmond Swayne; Charles Walker, William Wragg). But for most Conservative MPs honour had been served: they got their way without having to rebel against their own government. In the cockpit there is finally something to crow about.
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