No-one could have predicted this. Mere days after UK MPs return to Westminster, a government minister has fallen ill, turning the UK parliament building into a disaster no-go zone. Like Chernobyl, but with nicer upholstery.
I say no-one could have predicted this – when, let’s be honest, anyone with half a neurone could have. After all, this story will sound familiar to most people. That’s because much the same thing happened three months ago: suspected COVID infection began to spread through Westminster until workplaces across the country were forced into remote working, and our Prime Minister landed in intensive care. Have we learnt nothing during this pandemic? As the dispatch box is deep-cleaned, you can’t help but wonder whether this was all worth it. Sharma may have tested negative for COVID, but it’s only a matter of time before an MP tests positive. In-person debate in parliament failed in March, and it’s failing now, to no-one’s surprise. The UK’s daily infection rate was high in March, and it’s still high now. I believe it was Einstein who said doing the same thing multiple times and expecting different results was the definition of madness, and it’s hard to view the last week’s parliamentary business as anything but.
And if MPs returning to Westminster now isn’t madness, it’s farce. Jacob Rees-Mogg – the man so dedicated to the importance of parliamentary debate he has been photographed reclining across multiple seats in the commons, as if he were hours into a stag do in Magaluf, instead of in Westminster – has somehow managed to achieve this phenomenal feat. At his say-so, almost the entirety of parliament has left the protection of isolation and remote working, to traipse into the commons and vote in person. His has been the privileged position of being able to tear up government guidelines: the current pandemic guidelines state that if a person can work at home, they should. And MPs can. At one man’s will, parliament has been transformed into one giant conga-line. Instead of video conferencing, a socially distanced human centipede winds its way to the voting lobbies.
It may be a farce, but the consequences for this ludicrous experiment could be devastating. Westminster has previously been a COVID-19 hotspot, and if any MP tests positive, we don’t have only one isolated cluster of cases to worry about. MPs travel. When our representatives in parliament return home to their constituencies, will they not then cause further clusters around the country? It’s hard to believe they won’t.
And that’s to say nothing of the MPs shielding because of their age or underlying health conditions. Under Rees-Mogg’s proposed regime, they are denied their vote in parliament. By being unable to leave their homes without risking their lives, they would also have been unable to vote online. The proposed changes make clear how dispensable people with disabilities, and the elderly, are to some MPs of this government. The message this sends isn’t a pretty one: that Rees-Mogg and supporters of the in-person debate regime are fine with the erosion of our democratic rights if a constituency’s MP has diabetes, or is recovering from an organ transplant. If you’re unlucky enough to have an MP with underlying health conditions, you can say goodbye to your representative’s say in parliament. Conservative politicians may claim to love the NHS, but does that mean much if the only MPs who matter to them are those who have never had to use it?
Was the recliner-in-chief Rees-Mogg missing the green leather seats, or is he so scared of conducting meetings via Skype that he insisted all MPs, whether at high-risk for COVID-19 death or not, drag themselves into Westminster? Or perhaps he is just keen to see them all in person.
They don’t call Rees-Mogg the minister for the 18th century for nothing. But I don’t personally believe he is driven by disdain of modern technology. He might wear a monocle, but he isn’t a luddite. It is far more likely that this entire circus is a purely cynical move to give the Conservatives’ failing leader some backup. Without the catcalls and shrieks of support from Conservative backbenchers, Boris Johnson flounders.
And his supporters know that the awkwardness so many of us have experienced for weeks on zoom calls – with friends, family, and work – can be weaponised against a failing government. All it takes is a few potent questions. When a zoo of shrieking MPs isn’t there to flank your top man, the gaps and the failures start to show. It’s harder to bluff over 100 Mbps WiFi than in a crowd of heckling supporters. And while some may joke about Keir Starmer’s over-hyped “forensic” questioning of the Prime Minister, he does have a lawyer’s eye for legislative detail. Online debate lays that bare.
But what priorities does this government have, if it is prepared to generate a ludicrous circus of voting queues around Parliament simply to protect their failing leader, who can’t cut it in debate on his own? This is a government that did not dismiss Cummings for breaking the pandemic guidelines handed down to the masses, and this is also a government that is prepared to risk the health of its MPs and its citizens in order to win a few sound bites on the news. At the core of the problem is that this government seems to value the views of one rich man – or, perhaps, several, if we are to include the likes of Cummings alongside Rees-Mogg – over the health of its citizens. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, when it comes from the same party that deported Windrush generation migrants, produced “go home” vans for migrants and still hasn’t rehoused Grenfell victims. But it is depressing to watch.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the recliner-in-chief, got his green leather seats. And in this event yet another wealthy, privileged man considered important for some (ultimately, let’s be honest, unfathomable) reason by the government has been permitted to trash pandemic guidelines that have been so carefully handed down to the masses. Is it any wonder their guidelines are now ignored by so many? Over the last few weeks, one thing has become clear: the guidelines may or may not be sound. But they are, crucially, delivered by a party that seems to value the views of a few privileged, entitled men over the democratic rights of its citizens.