‘Virtual PMQs’: Bedspreads, bookshelves and nostrils laid bare. British politics in the WFH era
Uneven Internet connections, nostril camera angles and garish curtains. Welcome questions from the Prime Minister via the zoom; the mother of parliaments redesigned as a meeting of the team of regional directors.
In the spaces usually occupied by excitable MPs, there were signs indicating where it was safe to sit. Above their heads were television screens, displaying the faces of these lawmakers asking questions from outside the chamber. The parliamentary press gallery, which surrounds the back of the famous President’s chair, had only 16 journalists.
When the time came to ask the first virtual question, there was visible concern in the House as Lindsay Hoyle, President of the Commons, announced, “David Mundell, we could not make connections.” Fortunately, this was the only major hiccup and the rest of the questions from those who were not in the room went relatively well.
For the remainder of the session, viewers were treated to rare glimpses of the living rooms, bedrooms, home studies and nostrils of their MPs.
Among those who were not physically present was the Prime Minister himself. Boris Johnson delegates to his assistant, Dominic Raab, who has been recovering since his hospitalization with the virus.
But everyone was watching the occupier of the opposite seat – Keir Starmer, the newly elected leader of the opposition Labor Party, whose first outing to the PMQ was eagerly awaited by political observers.
Traditionally, the first appearance of any new leader is greeted with loud cheers from their own benches and pantomime mockery from those opposite. But the relative calm and emptiness of the House of Commons was perhaps the most striking feature of Wednesday’s historic debates.
The immobility of the famous combative chamber made the bite of most of the beards thrown through the shipping box disappear. The most tense exchange, in which Starmer accused the government of being “slow on locking, slow on tests, slow on protective equipment” and Raab responded by accusing the Labor leader of thinking he “knew better” than government scientific advisers would normally do. circumstances pushed hundreds of lawmakers to cry out and the President called for “order!”
And while many will have hosted a more worthy weekly meeting of the country’s legislative chamber, others will fear that it will not do the best job of holding the government to account. Indeed, the notorious hostility of the British Parliament is considered by many within it as its most effective function.
There must already have been a huge day in the country’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Parliament has been on hiatus since March 25, shortly after Johnson reluctantly locked the nation out. Meanwhile, Johnson himself was hospitalized because of the virus and his government’s response to the crisis was criticized.
The charges against the government are comprehensive, ranging from failing to provide personal protective equipment to front-line health workers to slow tests and serious underreporting of figures.
While all parties have agreed that Wednesday’s virtual PMQs were generally successful, opposition lawmakers remain concerned that social distancing makes government control work more difficult than ever during a crisis.
And regardless of how a question and answer session went to a replacement Prime Minister, the British Parliament is still far from resuming its normal activities. And we still don’t know when its most famous function will return: howling.