August 12, 2022

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Democracy In the Age of Coronavirus

(Bloomberg Opinion) — The U.K.’s House of Commons, often called the “mother of parliaments” (although that’s not the original meaning of the term), took a flying leap into the Zoom era this week with its first virtual Prime Minister’s Questions meeting. It was a different look from the usually raucous, crowded chamber of standing speeches, jeers, interruptions, eye-rolls and the suspense-filled votes that fixated many around the world during those endless Brexit debates.

On Wednesday, instead of the usual 30 minutes of heated clashes at close proximity, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle presided over a hybrid session, in which 50 lawmakers stretched out along the benches in the Chamber and various MPs dialed in from around the country. It was both familiar and strange — those iconic green benches of the Commons, that awkwardness of remote communications and then the upper torsos of lawmakers silhouetted against bookshelves or kitchens (or, in the case of one Scottish National Party lawmaker, signed soccer balls). 

Under the new normal, MPs will work in these hybrid sessions three days a week until at least May 12, though the arrangement can be extended. They have also been told to dress smartly.

And yet none of this is merely to keep up appearances. It matters greatly that democratic institutions remain fully functioning during a period in which the role of government has been supersized, normal liberties are suspended and elected officials are being asked to make decisions on matters far outside their experience. As the independent Institute for Government has argued — and set out in a new paper by Raphael Hogarth — parliamentary oversight improves the quality of government decisions and outcomes. It’s needed more than ever right now, especially during the absence of a prime minister who won a substantial personal mandate.

Boris Johnson, who is still recovering from a serious case of Covid-19, didn’t dial in this week, but the questions and statements concerned the key issues on which his government will be judged: its handling of the crisis, its ability to meet testing targets and provide sufficient protective equipment for frontline workers, and its plans for phasing out lockdown restrictions.

All of these issues have been hotly debated in the media and raised during the daily press briefings. But neither forum is quite as good as Parliament in providing scrutiny and holding government to account.

The weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, or PMQs, which has been a permanent feature of the political calendar since 1961 (it was originally a twice-weekly ordeal), can often seem merely performative. They are a deceptively complex jousting exercise, in which the opposition leader usually asks six questions, the goal of which is to embarrass, expose or otherwise unsettle the government. 

But in a democracy where the majority party pretty much runs the show, these bouts hold the executive to account and also keep the prime minister closely plugged into myriad ministries, since he or she must anticipate lines of attack and prepare a defense. PMQs often set the agenda for the news cycle and can inform public opinion.

Prime ministers and opposition leaders tend to devote a sizable chunk of time to preparing for these duels. Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoirs that, “No head of government anywhere in the world has to face this sort of regular pressure and many go to great lengths to avoid it; no head of government, as I would sometimes remind those at summits, is as accountable as the British Prime Minister.”

This week’s head-to-head wasn’t quite business as usual. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab deputized for Johnson, and Keir Starmer debuted as Labour leader. The clash wasn’t vintage, but it was enlightening.  

When Starmer asked Raab why, when the government set a target of conducting 100,000 tests a day, it had only managed to perform around 18,000, Raab patronizingly corrected Starmer on his numbers: “Our capacity for tests is now at 40,000 per day and I think that is an incredibly important milestone.”

Starmer didn’t let him get away with it. “I didn’t need correcting,” he shot back. Capacity isn’t the same as actual testing. He restated Raab’s milestone in rather less flattering terms: “That means that the day before yesterday, 40,000 tests could have been carried out but only 18,000 tests were actually carried out.”

The best opposition leaders weave pointed questions with a broader verdict on the government of the day. Like the former prosecutor he is, Starmer’s summation was sharp: “There’s a pattern emerging here. We were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and now slow to take up offers [of PPE] from British firms.” Raab tried to quash the charges, but they stuck to his shoe like a wad of gum.

Would Johnson have done better than his somewhat wooden foreign secretary? Probably, but the thing about PMQs is that, when they’re done well, it becomes obvious when the government doesn’t have the answers. When Raab couldn’t answer how many care-home staff had died from Covid-19, Starmer put him on notice that he planned to ask the same question next week.

Starmer, it’s often said, lacks the raw charisma of Johnson or even Jeremy Corbyn. But he makes up for it in competence and professionalism. “Possibly the most fluent & effective PMQs performance by a Labour leader in, ooh, about 1,684 days,” tweeted the British radio presenter and podcaster James O’Brien on Wednesday.

Some may have found the event too sterile, devoid of the usual drama that makes PMQs a grueling test as well as a show. But, much like remote working, others may have found that the semi-virtual arrangement stripped away the performative and made more room for more substance. 

Of course, there were glitches and it’s still too early to declare Parliament-by-Zoom a fitting substitute. It’s not clear how actual voting will work, given that members normally must be present. There are also security concerns about the potential for Zoom-bombing (surely, the new word of 2020), as the U.S. House Oversight Committee experienced recently.

Even so, it was reassuring to see those old wheels turning. Parliament sat through World War II, ceasing only during the Black Death in the 14th Century. “What we do in this house isn’t something that’s nice to do — a bauble on the British constitution. It is the British constitution,” said Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg when he set out the new procedures. Hear, hear. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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