MPs vote to end the virtual Parliament – as shielding colleagues watch on from home
Jacob Rees-Mogg joins MPs queuing to vote this afternoon
A queue of MPs snaked 1km through Westminster Hall this afternoon, in the first physical vote of the Covid-19 era. But vulnerable and shielding MPs were notable by their absence
This afternoon, MPs filed through the Chamber for their first socially distant vote of the Covid-19 crisis, snaking first through a 1km queue in Westminster Hall before being chivvied into the Commons by an increasingly irate Lindsay Hoyle to cast their votes at the despatch box.
You cannot fault the Commons Services for how they have tried to implement the Government’s plans to end hybrid Commons and remote voting – this is the only system that could provide for physical distancing and meet public health requirements. However, in practice it started off as a bit of a mess.
At the beginning, no one seemed to know where to queue or where to go. Jim Shannon nearly walked through the wrong “lobby”. Kevan Jones said “no” at the “aye” box and had to quickly correct himself. Logjams formed outside the Chamber, leading to the Speaker at times resembling a teacher trying to get school children onto a bus as he chided them to “walk faster” and “keep coming”. The clerks, with seemingly more patience, constantly reminded MPs where to stand (the despatch box) and what to say (their names and how they were voting – although some MPs seemed unsure of both at times).
As proceedings went on, some took the public opportunity to crack a joke – or make a dig. Kevin Brennan, who immediately preceded leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in casting his vote, called it the Mogg Shambles, while his Labour colleague Lloyd-Russell Moyle called the process “a farce”. On the Conservative side, Tom Tugendhat complained about the hour-long wait (realistically, the whole thing took 44 minutes) as he rebelled to vote “aye” while Mark Francois hilariously pretended to be former shadow chancellor and Strictly Come Dancing star Ed Balls. Meanwhile Ian Mearns, Dan Poulter and Gavin Newlands were all reprimanded for wearing shorts in their stroll through the Chamber.
For Westminster watchers, who never see inside the voting lobbies in normal times, it did provide a fascinating insight into how some MPs approach voting – and exactly to what extent some MPs follow their crowd, noticably looking around for their Whips even as they approached the Dispatch Box. Keir Starmer cast his “aye” vote with a huge smile on his face, while Richard Fuller, Ben Spencer and Greg Hands kept their arms crossed at all times. The size of Stephen Doughty’s face mask meant you couldn’t see any expression at all. Angela Eagle got praise from the clerks for her clear pronouncement, and in years to come there may be a political psychology dissertation or two on what an MP’s approach to the microphone and how forcefully they spoke says about their political career trajectory.
Watching the Tories rebels walk up to the microphone to declare their “aye” votes added to the drama. You rarely get to watch rebellions develop in real time, especially from those you may not expect. Not only did it give political WhatsApp groups some new live content to discuss (“John Redwood! Caroline Nokes!! Peter Bone!!!”), it also meant that avid politicos could keep a running score.
After Karen Bradley’s amendment was defeated 185 to 242, voting on the main motion went much more smoothly, with MPs having got some practice in. Clerks were stricter with the process, making people repeat themselves until they got it right – including several Cabinet members, although not the prime minister who didn't actually turn up. There were also fewer Tory rebels, and apart from Conservative Stephen Crabb having to be directed through the correct lobby by Labour’s Liam Byrne with a “for God’s sake, Stephen”, everyone seemed to know where they were meant to be. Ian Mearns changed into a suit, and the queue moved location too, snaking out into the courtyard – all well and good when the sun is shining.
Proxy votes were also in place for some MPs – those on maternity leave, as has been in place since January 2019, but also apparently cast for at least one person not known to be on parental leave. However, this left an uncomfortable feeling for some watching, and one has to wonder how shielding MPs watching this would have felt.
Virendra Sharma, a Labour MP who is shielding, accused Rees-Mogg earlier today of scrapping “a perfectly workable remote voting system… so his PM looks better”, before adding: “It’s not safe yet, and almost anyone can see that.” If you saw the non-socially distanced huddles around the Speaker’s chair at points this afternoon, you might be inclined to agree.
The Commons rightly put in place measures to allow new parents to still participate in votes via a proxy last year, in the face of reluctance from some Parliamentary traditionalists, feeling that MPs who were new parents should be able to cast their vote on behalf of their constituents, and have that vote recorded. It was so successful that there was talk before the crisis of extending the right to other groups, such as those with long term illnesses or caring for ill family members.
In a last-ditch attempt before the vote, Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, revealed via several media outlets something he had previously chosen to keep private: that his wife has been disabled for 21 years, and that he was her carer and could not currently leave her. Asking colleagues not to make him chose between his wife and his constituents, he implored them to continue some type of remote participation. "Whatever message does this proposal send to the disabled and their carers?", Stone wrote.
But MPs have now gone against the advice of the EHRC, as well as seemingly not hearing the pleas of their colleagues who have found themselves disenfranchised due to a vote they could not even participate in. They have denied those shielding under medical advice in an unprecedented global pandemic the right to participate in UK parliamentary democracy – and it doesn’t sit well.
Over 200 MPs weren’t present today, nearly a third of all Members. A week ago, all could vote and participate from home. Now some have, in the words of Conservative MP Robert Halfon become “parliamentary eunuchs”, unable to do their job or represent their constituents. As was said in the Chamber by MPs from both sides before the vote: these measures don’t just look discriminatory, they are discriminatory.