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Boris on the box. Or Boris at the despatch box?

Should lockdown policy be announced in televised addresses or to a near-empty parliament?

Aficionados of Prime Minister’s Questions have had a glut of “firsts” to commemorate since parliament returned from its Easter recess. The inaugural PMQs to be part-conducted by video-link was also the first to co-star Keir Starmer as the straight man in the bill-topping double act. His material was good, but undermined by being paired with fellow straight man, Dominic Raab. Only today, in Starmer’s third outing at PMQs, did his opportunity finally arrive to perform with the great entertainer himself.

Everyone agreed it was good to have the prime minister back. After an enforced absence involving intensive care and the atypical recuperation technique of becoming a father again, Boris was back at the despatch box. Affable, briefly amusing, optimistic, vague on detail, he was almost himself.

Yet, it is difficult to summon commanding hutzpah to a near empty auditorium. With a cast of extras that scarcely reached double figures behind him (and similar scarcity facing him) the prime minister had no crowd to work, no tide to surf. Considering how much of his act involves crowd-pleasing, this new format puts him at a considerable disadvantage.

Indeed, if anything beyond the science and the economic statistics might motivate Boris Johnson to get the country back to normal as quickly as possible, then the fate of having to weekly address empty green benches could well do the trick. The frenzy and energy of the Westminster cockpit has been drained and replaced with the deliberative hush of the courtroom – exactly the atmosphere that suits the interrogatory style of prosecution barrister, Starmer QC.

Coronavirus has not only reduced the palace of Westminster to a skeleton attendance – there are almost as many video screens in the chamber now as in-person politicians – it has shifted government communication even more decisively away from the floor of the house and towards making direct television addresses. The innovation of daily 5pm Downing Street press conferences, the prime ministerial announcements from outside the front-door of Number 10 and the decision to address the nation first on tv when issuing lockdown instructions has reduced parliament to an afterthought.

This shift is problematic. As the Tory MP Steve Baker pointed out last Monday (by video link to the Commons), when the prime minister first announced the government’s lockdown instructions in his televised address on 23 March, police forces started enforcing them (or their interpretation of them) immediately and before parliament had made them law.

But there is also a logic at the moment in regarding parliament as the back office rather than the dealing floor. A public information campaign is best delivered to the public by looking straight into the camera and giving the message to them directly into their living rooms, rather than in questions and exchanges across a parliamentary floor. The depleted Commons attendance only reinforces this point. Saying something vital to an empty debating chamber is “bad optics.” Nor is it unprecedented. On Sunday, 3 September 1939, parliament was recalled for a special session to hear what had become of the ultimatum sent to Herr Hitler. The assembled MPs were given the bad news by the prime minister at noon. But the nation’s radio listeners had already heard it 45 minutes earlier, Neville Chamberlain having decided to first announce war directly over the airwaves.

there is logic in regarding parliament as the back office rather than the dealing floor

This Sunday, Boris Johnson will prioritise a direct television address ahead of a denuded parliamentary audience when he announces what changes are being made to the lockdown regime. At Westminster there is disquiet not only that parliament is the afterthought but also why the announcement is being made on Sunday and not either this Thursday (when the review period concludes) or following the weekend on Monday when parliament is sitting.

Answering Starmer’s question about whether the prime minister would be updating the house on the reviewed lockdown measures, Johnson replied (without indicating whether it would fall to him to issue it) that the government would make a statement to the Commons on Monday. To this, The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, made the pointed aside “and hopefully in future to the House first.”

Yet, moments earlier the prime minister had offered parliament an exclusive. Replying to Starmer’s question about why the daily number of tests had only hit 100,000 on the one day that the health secretary had targeted but not thereafter, Johnson announced an “ambition” to achieve 200,000 tests daily by the end of this month. This was new.

Sitting just about two metres away, Matt Hancock’s head shifted ever so slightly in a motion that some observers interpreted to be reminiscent of alarmed surprise with a proportionate hint of dissent. Subsequent lobby briefings have offered the reassurance that the health secretary was in no way taken aback.

But seasoned journalists certainly were. A policy heard first in parliament! A policy not hinted at, leaked, trailed by being fed first to the lobby on an non-attributable basis? The immediate response to this constitutional outrage was telling. Either the prime minister had misspoken, or had experienced a rush of blood to the head. We know he has had a tough and emotionally draining time recently. But prime minister, speak to us, are you okay?

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