Jacob Rees-Mogg has been rebuked by the Commons Speaker and accused of endangering MPs’ safety ahead of their return to Parliament next week.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle has demanded that Downing Street put forward fresh proposals after the Commons leader forced a return to Westminster from Tuesday.
Mr Rees-Mogg has been heavily criticised for ending the current “hybrid” system where a maximum of 50 MPs are allowed in the Commons and others debate and vote virtually from home.
He initially said MPs would “set an example” to the public by voting in-person and Conservative MPs were whipped to approve the move, despite criticism it put vulnerable MPs with underlying health conditions at risk of catching coronavirus.
But in a letter to MPs on Wednesday he rowed back and admitted this was no longer possible, citing Public Health England (PHE) advice, prompting accusations he had “bungled” the plans.
In an unprecedented intervention, Sir Hoyle told MPs in another letter: “Based on the latest professional advice from PHE, it is clear to me that the House simply cannot conduct divisions safely via the lobbies.”
He added: “Now that I have agreed to a recall on Tuesday, it is for the government to decide what proposal for voting it wishes to put forward.
“I have been clear to the government and to opposition parties that I would prefer cross-party agreement to be reached about the way in which the house should conduct its proceedings when the house returns, including on how divisions should take place.”
Despite opposition leaders rounding on the return, the Commons will sit physically on Tuesday after the week-long Whitsun recess.
It will start early at 11.30am rather than 2.30pm to debate a Government motion on how to proceed.
Shadow Commons leader Valerie Vaz claimed Mr Rees-Mogg’s backtrack was an attempt to correct his earlier “discriminatory” call for the return.
“This is the latest example of the Government in chaos,” she said.
“Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to abolish the hybrid remote Parliament, which allowed all MPs to take part regardless of their personal circumstances, without any prior notice and against all advice on the last day Parliament met.”
She added: “We welcome Mr Speaker’s statement and stand ready to work with the Government and all parties to reach a consensus that would allow all MPs to participate on equal terms, including voting.”