Spotty internet connections, up-the-nostril camera angles and garish drapes. Welcome to Prime Minister’s Questions via zoom; the mother of parliaments reimagined as a regional managers’ team meeting.
In the spaces usually occupied by excitable MPs were signs showing where it was safe to sit. Above their heads were television screens, displaying the faces of those lawmakers asking questions from outside the chamber. The parliamentary press gallery, which wraps around the back of the famous Speaker’s Chair, was home to only 16 journalists.
When the time came for the first virtual question, there was visible concern in the chamber as Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the Commons, announced “David Mundell, we’ve been unable to connect.” Mercifully, this was the only major hiccup and the rest of the questions from those not in the chamber went relatively smoothly.
For the rest of the session, viewers were treated to rare glimpses of their MPs living rooms, bedrooms, home studies and nostrils.
Among those not physically present was the Prime Minister himself. Boris Johnson has been delegating to his deputy, Dominic Raab, who is recovering since being hospitalized by the virus.
But everyone’s eyes were on the occupant of the opposite seat — Keir Starmer, the newly elected leader of the opposition Labour Party, whose first outing at PMQs was keenly awaited by political observers.
Traditionally, any new leader’s first appearance is met with a raucous cheers from their own benches and pantomime jeers from those opposite. But the relative quiet and emptiness of the Commons chamber was perhaps the most striking element of Wednesday’s historic proceedings.
The stillness of the famously combative chamber took the sting out of many of the barbs tossed across the dispatch box. The most tense exchanged, in which Starmer accused the government of being “slow on lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment” and Raab responded by accusing the Labour leader of thinking he “knows better” than the government’s scientific advisers would under normal circumstances have had hundreds of lawmakers screaming their heads off and the Speaker calling for “order!”
And while many will have welcomed a more dignified weekly meeting of the nation’s legislative chamber, others will be concerned that it isn’t doing the best job of holding the government to account. Indeed, the British Parliament’s notorious hostility is thought by many inside it to be its most effective function.
It was already set to be a huge day in the nation’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Parliament had been in recess since March 25, shortly after Johnson reluctantly put the nation into lockdown. In that time, Johnson himself has been hospitalized by the virus and his government’s response to the crisis has been under fire.
The charge sheet against the government is exhaustive, from failing to provide personal protective equipment to healthcare workers on the frontline to sluggish testing and serious underreporting of numbers.
While all sides agreed that Wednesday’s virtual PMQs was broadly a success, opposition lawmakers remain concerned that social distancing is making the job of scrutinizing the government harder than ever during a crisis.
And however well one session of questions to a stand-in Prime Minister went, the British Parliament is still a long way from back to working as normal. And it remains utterly unclear as to when its most famous feature will return: the yelling.