MPs are to return to parliament after a government motion was passed to prevent the resumption of virtual voting, despite what one MP called “absurd” scenes of a kilometre-long conga line of politicians trying to vote.
The 527 MPs snaked through Westminster halls and courtyards for an hour and 23 minutes to vote on the proposal by the Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, which was carried by 261 votes to 163. It incited a furious reaction from many MPs, including those who are shielding and black and ethnic minority (BAME) politicians.
In a sombre moment in the debate that preceded the vote, the shadow Commons leader, Valerie Vaz, launched a blistering attack on the government, asking what “risk assessment” the government had done for both BAME MPs and workers in the parliament buildings.
“We are twice as likely to die,” she said, adding: “Please stop peddling the myth that we only work when we are here [in the House of Commons].”
Since 21 April a virtual parliament has allowed MPs to vote online or using their phones instead of cramming into backrooms in the House of Commons which divide the “ayes” from the “noes”.
But Tuesday’s first physically-distanced voting demonstrated how the system risked being choked, despite Rees-Mogg’s claim it would be better for democracy.
Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow work and pensions secretary, described the queuing system as “genius level stuff” while Neil Coyle, the Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, asked if there were any “cat shepherds” in Westminster to move the queue through quickly.
Currently in the queue to join the queue to vote. Genius level stuff this pic.twitter.com/i9pnoRXfk3— Jonathan Reynolds (@jreynoldsMP) June 2, 2020
“Queue two doesn’t even begin in courtyard. Welcome to what Johnson and Mogg think is acceptable for a 21st century modern democracy,” Coyle tweeted, photographing the queue weaving its way through the parliamentary building; through the lawned courtyard; the underground secure passage to the Portcullis House atrium where it ended.
“Government should be wholly embarrassed,” he added.
Stewart McDonald, the Scottish National party MP for Glasgow South, said it was “absurd”, quipping that it might give the Conservatives “a practice run for the long airport queues post-Brexit”. He also complained that some MPs were not paying heed to social distancing.
In a partial climbdown, Rees-Mogg said he would put forward a second motion on Wednesday to allow the hybrid parliament to continue to allow MPs to attend debates virtually.
However, while he did not rule out a virtual or proxy vote, there were no plans to allow MPs who could not attend the house on medical grounds to have a vote on legislation.
He pledged there would be a “pairing” arrangement that would ensure each MP unable to make the vote because of shielding issues would be matched by a non-voting government MP.
But he faced an immediate backlash, with MPs living hundreds of miles from Westminster branding it “democracy for the elite”.
The Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, Alistair Carmichael, who took 18 hours to get to Westminster because of flight restrictions, said Rees-Mogg was giving a green light to a parliament for people “within driving distance of London”.
The Democratic Unionist Ian Paisley said the move would “obstruct” the right to vote of the party’s eight MPs as there were flight restrictions in place between Belfast and London, while the SNP’s leader in the Commons, Ian Blackford, said it had taken him 16 hours to get to London because he had to get the sleeper train. “What a waste of time in the middle of a national health crisis when MPs should be attending to their overflowing postbags,” he said.
Carmichael said it was also irresponsible. He would be staying in London “for the duration” because he felt he would have no choice but to self-isolate for 14 days if he returned to the islands from a potentially infectious environment.
Rees-Mogg, who lives close to Westminster, questioned the democratic value of MPs who were voting on their phones or from their home offices.
“Voting while taking a sunny walk or watching television does democracy an injustice,” he told the 30 or so physically-distanced MPs present in the chamber.
Rees-Mogg claimed it was in voters’ interests to get parliament back up and running as legislation had been “clogged” with “no detailed, line-by-line consideration of bills that will affect people’s lives”.