Boris Johnson clearly hates parliament. It’s an irritant. He says Churchill is his hero, but it’s Neville Chamberlain he mimics in his exasperated irritation at MPs’ questions. And just as Chamberlain salivated when he heard that Albert Lebrun, the French president, was thinking of suspending the Assemblée Nationale for a couple of years in 1938, so Johnson does everything he can to avoid the place. He prefers Downing Street for key announcements rather than the Commons – a desk or a podium rather than the despatch box.
Johnson has never really been at home in parliament, either. When he first arrived he looked fazed on the green benches and he often still seems uncomfortable in the chamber, resentful it never grants him universal applause. His resignation speech as foreign secretary was the dampest of squibs. He brought Dominic Cummings, one of the few men in history to have been condemned for contempt of parliament, into his top team.
I fear his summoning of parliament for a physical return on 2 June shows similar contempt for parliamentary democracy. He seems oblivious to the fact that many MPs are shielding because they are on immunosuppressant medication, have partners or family members who are shielding, or have childcare responsibilities. A true democrat would want to ensure that all those MPs can participate as fully as possible from home. But no, Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg demand we all return, en masse. This is the survival of the fittest. All so that the government can railroad controversial legislation through.
Parliament will be disenfranchising a swathe of MPs who would like to take part in debates on behalf of their constituents
The latest madness is that the government is determined that all MPs vote in person in the Commons. Since Public Health England has condemned the traditional Aye and No lobbies as unsafe in the coronavirus pandemic, this means that MPs will be required to queue 2 metres apart, appear at the bar of the House, shout out “Yes” or “No” and pass through the chamber. A conga line of 650 MPs will snake round the estate for 1.3km and we might have to start across the river at Lambeth Palace. The poor souls at the end of the queue will have to pass through the slipstream of hundreds of colleagues, risking infection.
The government whips say this is essential, as we have to show that the UK is getting back to normal and that they will arrange pairs for anyone who can’t attend, but that completely misses the point. If the only means of participating in parliament is physically in person, parliament will be knowingly disenfranchising a whole swathe of MPs, who would like to take part in debates and divisions on behalf of their constituents.
Despite my skin cancer treatment last year, I’m happy to return physically to parliament, not least because I want to give ministers a proper grilling in person, but it would make far more sense for us to keep the remote system of voting at least until the summer recess. And I would gently suggest to traditionalists in the Conservative ranks that this will bring the whole system into such disrepute that, by the summer, everyone will be clamouring for electronic voting to become permanent. After all, it takes just a few opposition MPs to demand a division and force the whole of the Conservative party to troop through.
There are other practical issues that the government simply hasn’t addressed. Many MPs share offices and accommodation in London. So they will suddenly be entering another household – and will return to their constituencies at the end of the week. That sounds like an amazingly effective way of spreading disease. Moreover, a fully functioning parliament requires the best part of 500 additional staff, which adds to the burden on London Transport.
But I don’t think Johnson cares. Parliament is only of use to him as an audience.
• Chris Bryant is the Labour MP for Rhondda