Members of Parliament have arrived back in SW1 to a space renowned for tradition, now transformed in a matter of weeks to meet social distancing requirements. Parliament sat this afternoon following Easter recess with a number of MPs opting to stay in their constituencies and use video conferencing in a new era for the lawmakers.
The Palace of Westminster has a vastly different feel today as both houses return. The Parliamentary estate is one of the first work environments to reopen, albeit in a limited way, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis.
The new working for practices for MPs will make an interesting test case for social distancing – with no more than 50 MPs allowed in the Commons chamber at any one time. Employers up and down the country will be looking at how a managed return to normality can be made to work with what are, effectively, 650 SMEs in the same building.
Those staying in their constituencies will tune in to debates and proceedings over video link for the foreseeable future. Members of the House of Lords have followed a different approach and will use Microsoft Teams rather than Zoom.
Parliamentarians getting back in the saddle after weeks of dealing with difficult constituency case work will return with a fresh empathy for employers and employees. Dealing with mountains of issues around the implementation of government support schemes has really stretched MPs and their parliamentary staff. As MPs get together in the tea rooms – socially distanced, of course – a consensus will be forming about a need to bring this to an end.
Much has been made over the need for scrutiny of the government during this period. The new leader of Her Majesty’s opposition Sir Keir Starmer will want to hit the ground running following his election as leader of the Labour Party. He can go some way to do that by attempting to push the government to come forward with a more detailed plan for the country. Starmer and his newly assembled team will not be overly concerned at current soft polling. At this point, the aim will be to land a few blows as well as look competent.
The real political attacks have yet to begin. Now that the House has returned, ministers will be hearing directly from colleagues, across all parties, about individual tragedies and patience will begin to wear thin. This is a moment of danger for the government as it wrestles with the Hobson’s choice of giving a green light to protect the health of the nation and the health of the British economy. The challenge could not be greater. We have seen the rise of a second wave of infections in Singapore – this will not have gone unnoticed at the top of government and illustrates the challenge to all politicians.
Every MP will be returning today with his/her own view of how we best exit this crisis with each option impacting us all. Which exit is the right exit will be playing on the minds of all those MPs returning to Westminster as the country waits for the next stage of this crisis to unfold.