Artillery Row

Farewell Hybrid Parliament. Goodbye Scottish MPs?

MPs are to return to Westminster. But will Welsh, Scottish and Ulster MPs come?

Parliament has gone into its Whitsun recess. So ends its one month experiment operating a hybrid system in which a small number of MPs attended in person whilst the vast majority contributed by internet connection.

Assessing the effectiveness of this brief constitutional novelty will be the stuff of political science journals and MPhil dissertations for months and probably years to come. Even the hybrid parliament’s greatest detractors would concede that it was better than the alternatives of either the abandonment of parliamentary sittings or continuing with only a tiny band of MPs voting on legislation of considerable sweep and consequence. “Better than nothing” sums up in three words what an MPhil on the effectualness of the hybrid parliament will likely take 20,000 (with footnotes) to conclude. But in the sense that it has been so rapidly discontinued, it cannot be said to have succeeded.

It was a product of its time, and that time was fleeting. When the hybrid system was devised, the UK was gripped by the presentiment of looming doom. Today, the London that MPs are being asked to return to recorded not one new case of Covid-19.

So why the reluctance to heed the call back to Westminster? Finally able to “spend more time with their families” (an old 1980s euphemism for being sacked), MPs could be forgiven for settling nicely into legislating from home. Talking into a laptop is less nerve-racking than standing-up in a packed chamber and less soul-destroying than addressing a near empty one. By not having to travel further than their kitchen table they could spend more time in their constituencies. Although, thanks to social distancing, not more time with their constituents.

But examples must be set. The government is asking primary school children to start returning to classrooms from 1 June. And where children lead, politicians follow. When parliament reconvenes on 2 June, it will be through physical attendance only, not an internet connection.

It will not be a return to olden days. Measures are being put in place to ensure that the parliamentary estate will operate with social distancing – there will be no return to a packed chamber, a new division system is being introduced in which MPs can vote whilst remaining six feet apart, research and support staff will continue to work from home and there will be special arrangements (details yet to be announced) to protect MPs who are in high risk health categories. “As regards to how numbers will be kept down, there is a well-tried and tested pairing system and discussions are going on between the whips,” the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg advised, “so I expect that any member who is concerned about coming here will not have to attend or will not be whipped to attend.”

where children lead, politicians follow.

By Rees-Mogg’s calculations, keeping the hybrid measures in place would cut the time that can be devoted to scrutinising legislation by two-thirds. With 36 bills outlined in the Queen’s speech, it might be imagined that the Opposition is eager to seized back the opportunity to better interrogate the government. One fear when the hybrid parliament was introduced was that it would allow the government to escape diligent examination. How quickly perceptions and priorities change.

For it is predominantly Opposition MPs that are least keen to return to their palace of work. Perhaps if Boris Johnson was surviving with a Theresa May style non-majority then more MPs would tolerate the factional health risk to help disrupt government business. It was not so long ago that rebellious MPs held up signs saying “SILENCED” during a brief sit-in of the chamber to protest at Boris Johnson’s prorogation attempt. Now they are less keen on lingering. A secure majority of eighty may have dulled the hunger of some Opposition MPs to cross the country to vote in divisions which they know they will lose.

Discussing the new social distancing measures that will greet returning members in June, Rees-Mogg indicated that attendance in the chamber would be limited. The expectation is that capacity will remain a its current limit of only 50 MPs at one time. If this is so then is the argument that proper scrutiny is being reinstated true?

Yet, this line of attack was missed in the exchanges that followed because what will be in reality the perpetuation of  a largely empty chamber conflicted with the argument that the main opposition parties made – in the words of Keir Starmer’s spokesman, the “priority is about the safety and wellbeing of staff.”

Health and safety was what concerned the MP who has the furthest distance to travel, in an urgent question by the LibDem member for Orkney and Shetland. In an uncharacteristically angry tone, Alistair Carmichael suggesting that getting MPs back to Westminster was a Tory trick to get more MPs braying behind their struggling leader at PMQs. “The business of this house can be done from behind a screen,” thundered Carmichael, “a computer screen, not from behind a screen of Perspex the only purpose of which is to shield the government from scrutiny and the prime minister from ridicule.”

essential travel means visiting a supermarket, not legislating for the United Kingdom

The high dudgeon stakes were raised further by Tommy Sheppard, the SNP member for Edinburgh East and his party’s Cabinet Office spokesperson. He attacked the “reckless, cavalier, and downright dangerous” recall of MPs to Westminster which left them “endangering the lives of one’s family and constituents.” The very idea, he said, was “Orwellian.” Although possibly he meant Darwinian.

Travelling between Scotland and London is a bit of a schlep at the best of times and Scottish members may indeed wonder whether it is worth the effort when the focus is currently on health matters which for their constituents is devolved to the Holyrood parliament (not that this stops them voting on such matters for England’s benefit). But there is much else in the upcoming business of the house that should interest MPs from all parts of the UK, especially the Immigration bill.

Sentimentalists for the Union may wonder whether some of this health and safety outrage is a tactic allowing nationalist MPs to find another point-of-difference with Westminster. As Rees-Mogg pointed out, the Scottish parliament is still meeting, “with a third of its members moving from all over Scotland to get there.” Yet no outrage at the “downright dangerous” Holyrood has been uttered.

But the difference is that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have rejected the government’s initiative to loosen the lockdown. They continue to prohibit long-distance inessential travel. London is long-distance and, it will be claimed, essential travel means visiting a supermarket, not legislating for the United Kingdom.

This is why the SNP has described the return to Westminster as a Tory ploy to “lock Scotland out of Parliament.” Of course, it might just as readily be argued that it is Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to maintain lockdown that is stopping Scots from participating in UK affairs. But that is not how the script is being written in Edinburgh (or Cardiff, or in parts of Belfast). What is being manufactured is a “no legislation without representation”-style beef in which the English will be portrayed as ruling without the participation of the other three nations of the kingdom.

Viruses come and go. But the war of attrition on the union continues relentlessly and remorselessly.

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