Just when you think you’ve seen it all, this government try something so underhand that it lowers the bar even further for downright pettiness.
This isn’t a massive issue but I know some of you like to understand better the weirdness of life in the Commons and a bit more about how the chamber itself actually works. So here’s a rather extreme example for you!
Throughout the pandemic, the Commons has used a degree of virtual participation. It worked well, we could take part in anything and vote electronically which meant we could abide by the same rules as you about working from home.
The problem was that it worked too well. We were holding ministers to account rather too effectively and working really hard from home just like you. So what did Jacob Reece-Mogg do? You guessed it, over the summer he suddenly cancelled electronic voting. The he banned MPs from speaking in debates, only in question sessions like PMQs and important statements.
This isn’t an accident, they have been trying to quell parliament, restrict the work it does. I have to say, it’s been really tough. To speak in parliament I now have to enter a ballot. Last week I wasn’t’ successful once, this week I’ve spoken every day. It is much, much harder to hold ministers to account than before, exactly at the time when we should be scrutinising the work they do.
So here’s the latest game: yesterday there was a packed agenda in the commons with a series of important bits of legislation that involved issues like the running of prisons during the pandemic. The last bit of business was a motion Reece-Mogg had introduced that would have forced MP’s to get a note from their GP to prove they were ‘medically vulnerable’ in order to qualify to speak in debates.
It was controversial as you’d imagine. It would waste doctor’s time for one thing, but also force MP’s to go public with medical conditions, and break government lockdown rules by forcing those who aren’t vulnerable to travel to London if they want to speak on behalf of their community.
And also the point that I made in this clip – people go to the doctors to be signed off work, not to get certified to use Zoom to continue working! This was simply ludicrous.
By a game-player like Reece-Mogg doesn’t leave it there, he has to go one further. So mid afternoon all hell broke lose in The Commons. Reece-Mogg stands up and withdraws all of the legislation from debate, this means the House was forced to turn its attention to the debate on doctors notes. He thought by doing this that he’d catch us all on the hop, that he’d win by ramming it through while no one was around or prepared. He thought he was being so clever…but he’s not.
People always have a go at whips and the work they do, but our whips are amazing. The senior whips are strategists, always looking and understanding how to get the most out of the Commons and our individual MP’s. They pounced into action. Valerie Vaz was due to speak for five or ten minutes two hours later, but she literally ran into the chamber. The whips contacted a whole bunch of us who were at parliament with a clear instruction, ‘get to the chamber NOW’. I was working quietly in my office dressed casually, so shoved my suit (and mask!) on and ran!
Our whips knew exactly what Reece-Mogg was trying to do. He was trying to rush the motion through by surprise when there wasn’t enough people to oppose it. This was at 4.30pm, and the rules say that if there are enough people trying to speak in the debate and there are still many arguments to be made, at 7pm, then the motion can’t be put to the vote and the whole thing falls apart. So our mission was clear…to express our many concerns in lots of detail, and not feel rushed in doing so!
Reece-Mogg was smug, he thought he had an ace up his sleeve. You see there’s a technicality in debates like these. Government can ask the speaker for a ‘closure motion’, which would force the vote to happen. In order for this to happen, the Speaker has to feel that the debate has heard the majority of arguments and a variety of speakers, plus…and this is critical…you also need 100 MP’s to vote in one of the lobbies to support it.
This is where Reece-Mogg isn’t half as clever as he thinks he is, because proxy-votes don’t qualify in this instance and most MP’s are using proxy votes at the moment to avoid crowding when votes are called, plus the Tories were on a ‘one-line whip’ yesterday which means they didn’t have to be present. This is the key thing that our whips instantly knew but Reece-Mogg didn’t…there weren’t 100 Tories on the estate to vote, so when the moment came he wouldn’t be able to close the debate.
I was in the chamber at the moment this dawned on him. He sat there looking at the floor with the colour draining from his face. He had humiliated himself and not for the first time.
Valerie Vaz’ five minute speech lasted for 1 hour 20 minutes. I spoke twice. Scenes were chaotic and government MP’s grew increasingly angry. They new they were losing, being beaten by their own stupidity, yet all they had to do was accept our amendment – which was supported by some brave Tories too – which would have allowed all MP’s to participate virtually when they needed to.
But they didn’t accept it. They can’t. People like Reece-Mogg are incapable of admitting he is wrong, adapting to a new reality, or even, at times like this, being decent. So 7pm arrived and the Speaker announced that the motion had fallen and we all toddled off back to our offices.
I wanted to tell you about this for several reasons. Firstly because some people like to know more about some of the odd but exciting moments in the Commons. Secondly because I wanted to tell you about one of the things I was up to on your behalf yesterday. And finally, because it’s important for everyone to know just how venal, petty, and mean-spirited this government actually is.
It might all sound like playground antics, but this is what we have to do to stop this lot. They know they can’t win arguments on merit, so we have to report to outwitting them to stop bad things happening. Luckily, half the people running our country are witless anyway so we can score some victories despite them having an 80 majority.