On the morning after the general election, Boris Johnson told the country that “parliament must change”. No legislature can be expected to be preserved in aspic. There is a need for our systems of governance to be made more pluralistic and representative. However, Mr Johnson has seized an opportunity in a crisis to concentrate power rather than diffuse it. The end of online voting and the quelling of parliamentary debate will reduce the Commons to a rubber stamp for whatever Mr Johnson wants.
What is being done away with for the next month is effectively the pivotal role assigned to parliament: the scrutiny that improves the quality of government, which, given the economic and public health emergencies facing the country, has never been needed more. Since early May, a hybrid parliament has been operating. MPs debated proposed laws and voted in virtual divisions. This was considered an imperfect but makeshift arrangement necessary to observe the social distancing guidelines. These rules, instituted to save lives, have not changed.
Yet the government has decided to end remote voting and online interventions in debates. Ministers want only a few dozen MPs in the parliamentary chamber to ask questions, and those who wish to vote must queue up to cast their vote in person at the dispatch box. MPs who have been advised to stay home and shield can no longer take part in debates or votes and will have to rely on their whips to find opponents to pair with. It is wrong that parliament should proceed without provision for remote participation when many elected representatives cannot attend in person.
The system was given a dry run on Tuesday – and was hardly an advert for parliamentary oversight. Instead of a digital voting system in which all MPs could be involved, we have a ludicrous queueing system in which only two-thirds of parliamentarians can participate. Online voting took 15 minutes, its replacement three times as long. That the new system is slower, more dangerous and less inclusive undermines ministers’ argument that the previous one was not fast enough to deal with the volume of legislation.
One suspects that there will now be fewer votes scheduled, which is a step back for democracy. Ministers evidently see no loss in the absent MPs unable to participate in debates on legislation. The message is very clear: we are dealing with a cabinet that is responsive at a stretch to the ruling party, but not to the Commons. Parliamentary democracy is fragile and can easily be disrupted if a powerful group of its members does not accept its rules.
A government that controls parliament can suppress information or inquiries which are to its disadvantage, sometimes by refusing to supply information. Team Johnson appears to be both scornful and fearful of scrutiny – silencing scientists who might depart from the script during the damaging Dominic Cummings affair and delaying the publication of the last intelligence and security committee report on Russia. More pertinently, the coronavirus crisis requires an effective parliamentary audit of the far-reaching powers placed in the hands of the executive.
It was a former Tory lord chancellor who warned that “human nature being what it is, every human being and every human institution will tend to abuse its legitimate powers unless these are controlled by checks and balances, in which the holders of office are not merely encouraged but compelled to take account of interests and views which differ from their own”. A system was in place that allowed MPs to vote, speak and represent their constituents. In rescinding that, the government has left many voters unrepresented. Mr Johnson betrays a view of the lower chamber as a bystander in governance. A vigilant, inquiring and effective Commons is essential to prevent the misuse of formidable powers in a pandemic. It is extremely bad news for the country that Mr Johnson does not want such a parliament.