Visiting the Palace of Westminster is entering an eerie portal into what will soon be Britain’s “new normal”. The corridors of power are hushed — most politicians and staffers are working from home. The floors are littered with warning stickers to keep 2m apart. The coffee shops have plastic barriers to protect baristas. And in the House of Commons itself, red crosses mark where MPs can and cannot go.
Parliament is ahead of many workplaces with its hybrid Covid-19 arrangements. In a system pioneered by Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, up to 50 MPs can attend proceedings in person and 120 others can beam in from home. When the infrastructure improves, more will be able to join and, soon, remote voting will be introduced. For an institution often decried as stuck in a bygone era, the technological transformation in just three weeks is astounding.
Yet while Sir Lindsay’s grand scheme has ensured scrutiny of the government goes on, it is no substitute for the bustling, shambolic mess of political life. Without MPs, parliament is basically a stately museum with a Tube station. The Commons chamber is crushed by silence: in the virtual sessions of prime minister’s questions, the loudest noises came from MPs unmuting their Zoom connections. The scattering of those physically present gave little cheers for their party leaders. Their efforts were a sad reminder of a better time.
MPs feel isolated from the political process. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has essentially shrunk to a “war cabinet” of a handful of ministers and officials. They take key decisions in a daily 9:15am hybrid meeting in Downing Street.No one knows who attends or what is discussed. One MP sighs: “No one has much of a clue about what is going on. Sure, the government has to get on with the crisis at hand, but many of us are feeling a bit useless.”
The cockpit of the nation will miss those critical moments when the mood of the House can forge reputations and change policy. When Heidi Allen, then a Conservative MP, delivered her maiden speech in 2015, she risked her career by decrying another round of benefit cuts. She spoke out “because today I can sit on my hands no longer”. It was brave, impassioned and worthwhile: dozens of fellow Tory MPs privately agreed. Ms Allen gave them a voice and the government relented.
A glimpse of that power reappeared this week. Mark Fletcher, the MP for Bolsover in Derbyshire, spoke about domestic abuse, which has soared during the lockdown. The 34-year-old told the few in the chamber of his “stepdad, who reigned with physical terror”. Mr Fletcher recalled the physical and mental violence he endured as a child. “Those are things that shape you, those are things that unfortunately you can never forget.” His speech was one of the best to come from the new Tories elected in December. It would not have had the same impact from his living room.
The deserted palace is lacking in plotting, too. The ill-lit corridors usually lend themselves to backroom deals. Real politics takes place in the members’ tea room, away from scrutiny. Some scheming had already gone digital — caucuses and tribes moved on to WhatsApp years ago. But virtual politicking suffers from the lack of human contact and encourages troll-like behaviour. This was partly to blame for the Brexit tribulations that turned UK politics into a global joke.
Mr Johnson’s cabinet ministers also lament the loss of intimacy with colleagues. “I’m really missing the coffee before and quick word after,” one minister says of virtual gatherings. “It’s one of the few moments where cross-departmental business can be done quickly, without civil servants. The gossip is often far more useful and interesting than the cabinet meeting itself.”
As the US Republican Steve Chabot once noted, politics is a contact sport. Lyndon Johnson won votes by grasping men by their lapels and talking them into submission. Tony Blair did the same with snug chats on his office sofa. But in the era of social distancing, contact is the one thing that cannot be adapted. Westminster will evolve through the “new normal”. But if lockdowns and restrictions continue for years, political life will suffer. Thanks to the pandemic, this parliament may prove just as restless and peculiar as the last.