Westminster Diary: Adapting to the coronavirus crisis

St Albans MP Daisy Cooper in Westminster.

St Albans MP Daisy Cooper in Westminster. - Credit: Archant

Parliament isn’t designed to deal with crises, but it’s amazing how quickly it can adapt – when it wants to.

On Monday 16th, around 600 MPs had arrived in Westminster from around the country as usual. By the end of the day, all parliamentary staff had been instructed to work from home and all visitors were barred – with immediate effect.

Parliament adapted quickly - some MPs left London immediately. On Tuesday, opposition parties were invited to private sessions to ask questions of No 10. By Wednesday, Prime Minister’s Questions was unrecognisable. Normally, MPs clamour to reserve their seats from 8am and then cram themselves onto the green benches like sardines. Not this week: MPs were instructed not to attend at all unless they had been guaranteed a slot to ask a question. By Thursday, most MPs had left Westminster. Those of us who were left – wanting to raise urgent issues - practised social distancing in the almost empty Chamber.

Number 10 adapted too. The demand for greater clarity on government decisions had become a clamour so on Monday there was the first ‘daily update’ from Downing Street. This has added to the changes for MPs. Each day, within minutes of the press conference ending, a wave of queries has filled my inbox. Every headline announcement raising more questions than it answers – the devil is always in the detail.

My office has also had to adapt. On Wednesday, we introduced a new member of staff to the team – by video.

With all these changes, a question has arisen: how will MPs vote? Normally, MPs stand shoulder to shoulder in corridors, known as “division lobbies”, and shuffle through narrow bottlenecks where clerks record our names and vote. Knowing that the Government was going to publish controversial emergency legislation, some MPs asked whether we could use “deferred divisions” – where MPs vote on a series of proposals using ballot papers at a convenient time over a two to three hour period, a bit like polling day. Or better still, electronic voting: like Scotland and most other modern parliaments.

As always happens when this type of modernisation is suggested, the suggestions seemed to get lost amongst all the other issues proving that Parliament can adapt but, only when it wants to.