Jacob Rees Mogg has long been painted as an anachronistic, outdated parliamentary throwback from the 19th century which even his supporters have difficulty defending.
However, now the Common’s very own pantomime villain is facing new charges of depriving and effectively “euthanising” vulnerable MPs by insisting they return to Westminster to vote in person – without having specified how the 650 members will be able to do so, in a safe, viable, Covid-alert way.
Instead, Rees-Mogg has set the scene for yet another show of dissent towards the leadership of the Conservative party from its own backbenches, hot on the heels of the of the PM’s poor handling of the Dominic Cummings debacle and his very public u-turn over charging health and care workers the NHS migrant surcharge.
A 1km queue of 650 socially distanced MPs
Cast in his role as Leader of the House of Commons, Rees-Mogg is demanding the House returns to physical voting – despite the warnings from the Commons Procedure Committee (CPC) that such a move will disenfranchise vulnerable MPs with underlying conditions.
There’s also the mathematical fact that the basic 2 metre social distancing measure would require 650 MPs to form a queue more than a kilometre long. And probably take an hour to vote.
Former cabinet minister Karen Bradley is leading the revolt of senior Tories opposed to Rees-Moggs insistence that MPs must vote in person. He dismissed the warnings of the CPC, the committee that Bradley chairs, explaining that the optics would not be good if people perceived that they were being sent back to work and their children to school while MPs stayed away from Westminster.
Foregoing the facts that millions of workers are continuing to work from home because of lockdown and that the optics of parliament’s digital experiment have been highly favourable, the evidenced truth – proved by the government’s very limited lifting of lockdown measures – means the continuing risks of coronavirus remain too serious for vulnerable MPs with underlying conditions to congregate in the Commons, lobbies or anywhere else where there’s a chance of infection.
Get parliament Covid-alert
And as such, vulnerable MPs will be effectively disenfranchised by a return to physical voting – as warned by the CPC but dismissed by Rees-Mogg, who instead instructed the Speaker of the Commons to sort out the social distancing and get parliament Covid-alert.
Now six other senior Tories, all committee chairs, have backed Bradley’s demand that the government retains remote participation and voting so that vulnerable MPs can still take part in debates and votes.
It sounds reasonable. And therein lies the essence of the government’s dilemma – because the reasonable conduct of a digitalised parliament has been such a marked contrast and welcome change from the braying, pantomime-style performance that has become such a cliched feature of debate in the Common’s.
But the experiment has coincided with the arrival of Labour’s new leader to the dispatch box just as the prime minister’s nosiest, most boisterous cheerleaders have disappeared from the green benches behind him.
Lack of distractions costing Johnson
Anyone familiar with George Orwell’s 1984 will be well aware of the importance to politicians of diversion – which has of course been greatly lacking across society, not just in parliament.
And while the daily Downing Street press conferences has not yet quite become essential viewing, Boris Johnson’s statements and appearances – pre and post the his hospitalisation with Covid-19 – have been viewed by many more millions than would normally be the case.
But the bumbling one has not fared well. Even worse when compared to the manner, poise and utter seriousness of the former prosecuting QC Keir Starmer.
Johnson’s unkempt style is specifically styled to appeal to a normally highly distracted electorate who only normally engage with short clips of the “Boris” persona and drink-up his “piffle-paffle” phrasing.
His shirt-out-the-back-of-his-trousers style of buffooneery suits the pantomime back-and-forth of baying MPs but without them he stands exposed and increasingly incompetent under increasing scrutiny from both Starmer and a more tuned-in and aware electorate.
Rees-Mogg raises eyebrows and ire
Johnson’s u-turn on NHS surcharges for migrant health and care workers came less than 24 hours before he told the Commons during PMQs that the charge was absolutely necessary. Even the Daily Telegraph conceded another win for Starmer.
Support for the PM is falling as the UK’s coronavirus death toll continues to rise.
Which is why Rees-Mogg’s insistence –as stated in the motion he has tabled which the House will debate and vote on (in person) today (Tuesday) – that MPs “may only participate physically within the parliamentary estate” has raised the eyebrows and ire of so many.
The digital experiment has been working. The feedback from audiences has revealed an appreciation for the newer style of politics where the jeering, booing, hissing and heckling of honourable members has not been missed in the slightest.
There does not seem to be any good reason why parliament cannot continue – for now – to have up to 50 MPs and ministers live in the Commons being debated and scrutinised by those working remotely in their constituencies via video-conferencing.
‘If you’re not Tarzan you are effectively euthanized’
By taking away the technology, as Rees-Mogg’s motion will, the government will be effectively “euthanising” vulnerable MPs, said Robert Halfon, the Conservative member for Harlow and chair of the education select committee.
Halfon, who has cerebral palsy, said: “If there are MPs who are sick, shielding, or self-isolating, surely it is right to let them continue to vote online, and participate in committees also virtually via Zoom and Microsoft Teams.”
He continued: “Is it really morally just to say in effect to MPs, because you are not Tarzan-like and able to swing through the chamber, beating your chest, shouting to your constituents, ‘Look I am here!’ that you are effectively euthanised from the Commons?
“MPs who are disrupted by this awful pandemic are not just old horses to be sent to the knacker’s yard.”