British lawmakers upended 700 years of history on Wednesday, grilling stand-in leader Dominic Raab by video link in an unprecedented but largely successful ‘hybrid parliament’ session forced by the coronavirus outbreak.
As Britain endures its fifth week of a national lockdown, with businesses shuttered and citizens ordered to stay at home, parliament has returned from an extended Easter break in a very unfamiliar form.
A maximum of 50 lawmakers are physically allowed in the debating chamber, with another 120 permitted to join in via Zoom video conference beamed onto television screens dotted around the walls of the ornate wood-panelled room.
Raab, deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is recovering from a spell in intensive care with COVID-19, faced questions from lawmakers – absent the usual jeering in the crowded chamber, replaced by an orderly and largely glitch-free interrogation.
Earlier, speaker Lindsay Hoyle said he had his “fingers crossed” that the new arrangement would work – and it mostly did.
A couple of early questions in the session just before Raab’s question time were partly inaudible, and one questioner was unable to connect, but the overall process was not derailed.
Lawmakers, dressed formally in line with the Commons’ usual dress code, quizzed Raab from their homes, showing off an array of artwork, wallpaper – and even a pair of signed footballs.
Raab spoke from the debating chamber, where a handful of other lawmakers sat on the green benches, observing social-distancing markers taped on the carpet. The leader of the opposition Labour Party Keir Starmer also attended in person.
One lengthy question was inadvertently cut short, leaving lawmaker Peter Bone’s face animatedly reaching the climax of his interrogation on screen without audio.
Raab retorted: “I’m pretty sure I got the gist!”
Prior to the session, lawmakers had expressed concerns that the choreographed question session would blunt their ability to skewer ministers with unexpected follow-up questions.
“The only thing that brings any fear to ministers is the unknown supplementary,” former cabinet minister Liam Fox said on Tuesday in a debate on the new measures.
After Raab finishes, health minister Matt Hancock will make a statement on the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The new arrangement is so-far limited to questioning ministers, although officials are looking at ways that legislation can be discussed and even voted upon digitally.
“It’s symbolic, isn’t it? 700 years of working, and then suddenly we change to something new,” Hoyle told Sky News. “This is a starting point, this isn’t the end. What we want is a robust system that we build up from this point.”
© Thomson Reuters 2020