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Will the socially distanced PMQs change Parliament forever?

House of Commons
Professor Wyn Grant from Warwick’s Department of Politics and International Studies reflects on the rather muted debate in the House of Commons during the first socially distanced Prime Minister's Questions in the chamber.

Questions to the prime minister are in many ways the central event of the week in the House of Commons. Normally it is a very raucous affair. Both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition seek to score political points. In particular there is an effort to provide sound bites for television news. There are interruptions and heckling sometimes to an extent that the Speaker has to ask honourable members to show restraint. Well-made points by the front bench spokesman see MPs waving their order papers in support. A particularly successful series of answers by the prime minister is greeted by shouts of ‘More!’ from the Conservative benches.

Prime minister’s questions on 22 April were unusual in a number of respects. It was the first appearance of Sir Keir Starmer as leader of the opposition. He faced not the prime minister but the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who was appearing in his capacity as first secretary of state, deputising for the prime minister who was recovering from Covid-19. The normal practice when the prime minister is replaced by a deputy is for the opposition to nominate a senior member of the shadow cabinet to ask the opening questions. However, Sir Keir Starmer faces the challenge of rebuilding the credibility of the Labour Party as an alternative government and needs to start raising his profile. He took a measured approach, using his forensic skills as a lawyer to probe deficiencies in the Government’s approach to the Covid-19 crisis.

However, the really big change was the way in which questions were conducted. The chamber was marked out so that most seats had a ‘no sitting’ sign on them with intermittent seats displaying a tick to show that they could be used. In this way social distancing in the chamber could be maintained. It did mean placing a limit on the number of MPs that could enter the chamber, which one or two expressed concerns about, but the capacity limit was not reached.

One consequence was that whereas the chamber is normally packed to capacity for PMQs with many members standing at the bar of the house, instead it was sparsely populated in the way that it would be for the latter stages of a debate. This meant that the atmosphere was very restrained. There were some choruses of ‘Hear! Hear!’ but they were relatively muted and the usual heckling did not occur.

Those members who were not in the chamber were able to take part via video technology, although the total number able to appear was limited to 120. The technology generally worked well, although the first backbencher selected to ask a question, David Mundell, was not able to complete the connection. Those members asking questions remotely appeared on giant screens hanging from the roof of the chamber. On television one just saw the questioner and then the first secretary. Normally one can see the reactions of the front bench and one could have had the questioner and Dominic Raab on a split screen, although he does tend to be rather dead pan anyway. Remote technology was a clearly a boon to MPs living a long way away and no SNP members were in evidence on the benches, but their Commons leader, Ian Blackford, asked his customary two questions from his home on Skye.

The general mood was very sober and restrained; although how much that was to do with the gravity of the crisis and how much an effect of the changed format is open to speculation. PMQs is normally a very theatrical occasion and some people think that its point scoring nature brings politics into disrepute. Others argue that open conflict is an unavoidable part of a system of adversarial politics and the cut and thrust of PMQs simply reflects that. How much impact it has outside the ‘Westminster bubble’ is open to question, but it certainly affects reputations within the House of Commons.

In a paper for the Institute for Government, Dr Hannah White notes that ‘Parliament does not exactly have a reputation for innovation where digital technology is concerned.’

However, she continues, ‘parliament’s reputation as a reactionary, analogue institution is somewhat undeserved. In recent years, a steady stream of effort has been directed at digitising formerly paper-based processes. The HousePapers and CommonsVotes apps and online parliamentary Questions and Answers process, are all evidence of parliament responding to the digital age.’

Some practices in the House of Commons may change forever, for example one could see electronic voting introduced, although voting in the lobbies is valued by some MPs as a venue for informal discussion. PMQs will no doubt eventually revert to their traditional format, but the atmosphere may well be affected, whether for the better is a matter of opinion.

Published:

28 April 2020

About:

Prof Wyn GrantProfessor Wyn Grant is an expert in British politics with an interest in comparative public policy with particular reference to the European Union and the United States. The main policy areas he is interested in are economic policy, trade policy, government-business relations, agricultural policy and environmental policy. He also has a long standing interest in the study of pressure groups. He is also interested in the political economy of football.

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