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The Breakfast Briefing: Cabinet minister Alok Sharma self-isolates amid anger over Commons return

The Breakfast Briefing: Cabinet minister Alok Sharma self-isolates amid anger over Commons return
5 min read

Your essential morning guide to what’s moving in Westminster from the PoliticsHome team.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma is self-isolating and has been tested for coronavirus after struggling through an appearance at the Commons despatch box. 
 
A spokesperson for the Cabinet minister confirmed last night that he “began feeling unwell when in the Chamber delivering the second reading of the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill”. And they added: "In line with guidance he has been tested for coronavirus and is returning home to self isolate.”
 
House of Commons authorities have said "additional cleaning" has now taken place following the debate, which saw Sharma hesitate several times during his speech, mopping his brow and having to be passed a glass of water by his Labour opposite number Ed Miliband.

Attention is inevitably turning to the fact that Sharma’s illness comes just a day after MPs were made to return to the Commons 

Miliband has already wished the Business Secretary - one of the few who attended Cabinet in person in London this week - “a quick recovery”. But attention is inevitably turning to the fact that Sharma’s illness comes just a day after MPs were made to return to the Commons as the Government brought the curtain down on remote voting.
 
Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy told ITV’s Peston last night that MPs who were in contact with Sharma or in the chamber at the time “will have gone back into the community and potentially have taken the virus with them” if the Business Secretary does now test positive.
 
“Which is why the representation to Jacob Rees-Mogg was so serious, and it's bizarre and dangerous that they were ignored,” Lammy said. “We could have had electronic voting alongside a Parliament that was really, really carefully socially distanced which is what we had before the recess, and that was thrown out.”

It’s not just the opposition kicking off about this either, and there’s the sense that ministers have needlessly burned through goodwill across the House with those farcical scenes of long queues snaking through the Parliamentary estate. Jeremy Hunt, no fan of remote voting, said he was “surprised that the government dug its heels in”, branding the long lines “completely unnecessary and very frustrating”.
 
Sensing the mood, Boris Johnson did give some pretty significant ground yesterday, as our Georgina Bailey reports. Having already conceded that shielding and vulnerable MPs can continue to take part virtually in questions, debates and urgent statements, they will now also be able to let another MP vote on their behalf under proxy arrangements.
 
The exemptions will apply to all of MPs who are over 70 or who are shielding from coronavirus on medical advice, but there are no such caveats for those with caring responsibilities. A Labour spokesperson said the U-turn – which came in the middle of PMQs – showed how “chaotically this entire situation has been handled”.
 
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s motion making the changes goes before the Commons today. But committee chairs including Chris Bryant, Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper are launching a renewed push for all members to be able to carry on taking part in Commons business virtually. And you can’t help but feel that a Cabinet minister going into self-isolation will only bolster that case.
 
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING TODAY
 
Culture questions kick off the Commons action after 9.30am, before Attorney General Suella Braverman is up on her feet. There’s a smattering of Urgent Questions on the order paper after that, including a grilling for the minister for women and equalities on this week’s Covid-19 disparities review.
 
We’re also getting two urgent questions for the Northern Ireland Office after the NI Assembly backed a DUP motion symbolically rejecting new abortion regulations drawn up by Westminster.

The second urgent question will focus on the stalemate between Westminster and Stormont over a much-vaunted compensation scheme for victims of the Troubles which was supposed to be up and running by the end of May.
 
Boris Johnson meanwhile kicks off a major global vaccine summit at 1pm, in which he’ll urge world leaders to “unite humanity in the fight against disease” as part of a £6bn drive for the Gavi vaccine alliance. Shadow International Development Secretary Preet Kaur Gill has told us she wants to see action to ensure developing nations are not “priced out of a future Covid-19 vaccine”. 
 
Worth watching out for on committee corridor today is a 9.30 session on the impact of Covid-19 on businesses and workers, with groups including manufacturing body Make UK and Citizens Advice up before the BEIS Committee. The PM last night made clear that job losses were “inevitable” in the wake of the crisis, and the IPPR this morning warns that more than a million people could be pushed into poverty as a result of the pandemic.

But the PM also earned plaudits from Tory MP Rob Halfon for a big, bold promise to guarantee an apprenticeship for all young people in a bid to soften the blow.


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