On May 29, I wrote about the end of the successful ‘hybrid’ model the UK’s House of Commons used for several weeks during the coronavirus crisis.

The Commons allowed both in-person and remote participation. A few votes were even accomplished during that time, including remotely.

When the Commons reconvened on Tuesday, June 2, an amendment was proposed to resume the hybrid model. It is currently difficult for Northern Ireland’s and Scotland’s MPs to get to Westminster to work. With flight and other travel restrictions during the coronavirus setback, journeys can take up to 18 hours, one way.

Other MPs — including a few Conservatives — have absent themselves, as they are self-isolating, either for themselves or immediate family members.

The amendment failed.

A subsequent division — vote — took place on whether the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, should be allowed to determine the way Parliament works during the remainder of lockdown. That vote passed.

Therefore, MPs are expected to be in situ in the Palace of Westminster.

Both divisions made for compelling television viewing on BBC Parliament.

Despite the Speaker of the House, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, making clear what MPs were expected to do, many of them were unable to follow simple instructions. A schoolchild could have done better.

Apparently, the Speaker issued the instructions in writing before MPs reconvened. Then, before the first division, he announced that there would be two voting stations in front of the clerks: Aye and No. MPs were to announce their name at those voting stations, which were right in front of him, and their voting intention. They were allowed to voice votes for absent MPs in the same way.

Many BBC Parliament viewers were aghast at how many MPs, regardless of party affiliation, could not follow these simple instructions:

Guido Fawkes has the video in full. You could not make this up:

Not all 650 MPs were there to vote: over 400 were.

In order to abide by social distancing rules of two metres, they had to begin queueing across the street then progress to Westminster Hall, which is adjacent and connected to the Palace of Westminster, and, finally, to the Commons chamber.

The Telegraph has a photo of them queueing in Westminster Hall. They then had to be outdoors for a while. Fortunately, the weather in London was perfect that day.

Political sketchwriter Michael Deacon described the process, which MPs dubbed the Mogg Conga (emphases mine):

The queue to vote was almost a mile long. It snaked halfway round the parliamentary estate. Beginning inside Portcullis House, it tumbled down an escalator, spilled out into a courtyard, then ran up on to the New Palace Yard green – at which point, the line disintegrated into a mad squiggle, with bemused and/or irked MPs chatting in not at all socially distanced groups, and police officers trying helplessly to shepherd them in the right direction.

MPs did not appreciate having to queue for so long. Yet, that is what the rest of us have to do if we want to shop at the supermarket, DIY shops and garden centres. For thee, but not for me:

As the sun blazed down on exposed necks and scalps, consternation reigned. “Ridiculous!” harrumphed MPs.

I’m glad they could experience what their constituents do every day: queue and wait — for ages.

Once they reached the chamber, many stopped in their tracks. Why? The Speaker had to urge them on:

a despairing Speaker was gesticulating frantically and bawling, “Come on! COME ON! Let’s keep it moving!”, as if coaching a hapless primary school football team.

As the above video shows, that was only the beginning:

All each MP had to do was pass down either the right-hand side of the central table (if voting No), or the left-hand side (if voting Aye). They then had to pause, say their name, and add either “Aye” or “No”. But even this was a mess. Numerous MPs forgot to say their name; others remembered their name, but forgot to say Aye or No; and some forgot to say anything at all, and had to be called back by a clerk.

From start to finish, this festival of absurdity lasted 45 minutes – and that was just for the first division. Another division was due straight afterwards. So they had to go back and do it all again. This time, Stephen Crabb (Con, Preseli Pembrokeshire) accidentally voted Aye on the No side – and then attempted to correct himself by voting No on the Aye side.

Even our brainy Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, couldn’t manage it.

They will have to vote in this way until the day when social distancing stops:

The most farcical thing of all, though, was that – on the order of the Tory whipsa majority of MPs actually voted to keep this hilarious new system. So now they’ll have to do it all the time.

I wonder if this will hasten the end of social distancing. It could well do. Imagine standing outdoors in pouring rain.

Rees-Mogg said that a ‘pairing’ (proxy) vote system would be in place for those who cannot attend in person. It still doesn’t seem right, although I can understand that the hybrid system did not allow for actual debates. Instead, MPs made statements about proposed legislation.

The New Statesman interviewed four MPs who are having difficulty attending Parliament.

Robert Halfon (Conservative, Harlow) explained his situation and his disappointment that Rees-Mogg, who has a home in Belgravia, within walking distance of Parliament, couldn’t appreciate it:

Robert Halfon has a disability and is one of several MPs who have been shielding, on government advice, during the pandemic. He is considering travelling into parliament to vote in person in favour of an amendment to the legislation on parliament’s return, which would allow online voting to continue. 

It would be taking on a big risk, and goes against the advice of his own government — and party — on shielding. But it’s the only way he will have a say in the matter of his own disenfranchisement, and, by extension, the disenfranchisement of his constituents. 

“I’ve described it as my ‘democratic hood’ being snipped away,” he says. “I’m in essence a parliamentary eunuch. If I can’t vote, I don’t have a choice to vote, I’m a parliamentary eunuch.

“It’s wrong to have a vote on hybrid voting, and yet not allow MPs to have the vote online. At the very least, this vote should have been online to make it fair.”

He continues: “I’m fascinated by a virtual parliament, by the technology, but that is another argument for another day. I’m very happy to return to the traditions that they want so much, if, temporarily, we can get the vote and not be disenfranchised.

“I’ve discussed it with Jacob Rees-Mogg, I’ve discussed it with the chief whip, and I’ve discussed it with my whip.” The response? “Just parliament should be back, it’s got to go back to normal, and to vote in parliament you’ve got to be there.” 

I don’t think he [Rees-Mogg] understands why I feel so strongly about it. I want to do my duty, I want to have the choice whether to vote. I may not vote in everything, but I want to have the choice. Because I’ll then have to explain to people why. Why do I have to go round explaining to residents why I’m not voting, when they look at my voting record? 

There’s no understanding when people like me have a disability. I try to be as independent as possible and not be a victim and not complain and moan. I just want to do my job.”

The other MPs interviewed also have medical issues or are caring for those in their households.

On Thursday, June 4, Tuesday’s vote came up during the Business session, which Rees-Mogg presides over as Leader.

Rees-Mogg defended the vote queue …

… making a good point:

A Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, responded with this:

Carmichael applied for an emergency debate on the matter, which was held Monday, June 8:

The arrangements became even more contentious when it looked as if Business Minister Alok Sharma, who had a difficult time at the despatch box last Wednesday, was suspected of having contracted coronavirus. His test turned out to be negative, fortunately, and he was back at work the following week, presiding over the daily coronavirus briefing today (June 9):

Pairing and proxy voting came up in Thursday’s discussion, too. The arrangements are secret:

Conservative MP Gary Streeter was paired with a Labour MP:

I agree with him on abandoning the ability to vote remotely so soon. The virus is still active. Furthermore, technical staff put in days of work in order to create a viable system — a first in the Palace of Westminster:

Liberal Democrat MP Jamie Stone said there was no voting provision for carers who could not be present:

He is correct:

This means:

What a mess.

On Friday, June 5, the Speaker of the House sent a lengthy letter on future participation for those who cannot make it to the chamber in person. (Also see Parly’s Twitter thread.) Those MPs had to let him know by the end of the day whether they wished to be at home. They can participate virtually in some proceedings but not debates. During the time they have applied to participate virtually, they cannot then come to the chamber in person.

On Monday, June 8, Alistair Carmichael presented his arguments in introducing his emergency debate on the matter. It was a lively, sometimes spiky, discussion.

I agree with MPs who want a proxy vote. As they explained, it’s not just for them, it’s to represent their constituents — voters.

I agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg in saying that those absent from the chamber cannot participate in certain debates, e.g. on legislation. It would be impractical, because of the nature of ‘interventions’ — interrupting an MP to present an additional or opposing argument.

It looks as if Carmichael might have won this argument:

Rees-Mogg is likely to extend proxy voting:

Oddly, on June 8, the House of Lords, considered to be fusty and musty, moved to a hybrid system, including future online voting.