British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to attend Prime Ministers Questions at the Houses of Parliament on June 3, 2020 in London, England. Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to attend Prime Ministers Questions at the Houses of Parliament on June 3, 2020 in London, England. Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has seized an opportunity in a crisis to concentrate power rather than diffuse it. The end of online voting and the quelling of parliamentary debate will reduce the House of Commons to a rubber stamp for whatever Johnson wants.

What is being done away with for the next month is the pivotal role assigned to parliament: the scrutiny that improves the quality of government, which, given the economic and public health emergencies facing the country, has never been needed more.

Since early May, a hybrid parliament has been operating. MPs debated proposed laws and voted in virtual divisions. This was considered an imperfect but makeshift arrangement necessary to observe social-distancing guidelines. These rules, instituted to save lives, have not changed.

Yet the government has decided to end remote voting and online interventions in debates. Ministers want only a few dozen MPs in the parliamentary chamber to ask questions, and those who wish to vote must queue up to cast their vote in person at the dispatch box.

MPs advised to stay home and shield can no longer take part in debates or votes and will have to rely on their whips to find opponents to pair with. It is wrong that parliament should proceed without provision for remote participation when many elected representatives cannot attend in person.

The system given a dry run on Tuesday was hardly an advert for parliamentary oversight. One suspects fewer votes will be scheduled, a step back for democracy. The message is clear: we are dealing with a cabinet that is responsive at a stretch to the ruling party, but not to the Commons.

Parliamentary democracy is fragile and can easily be disrupted if a powerful group of its members does not accept its rules. A government that controls parliament can suppress information or inquiries to its disadvantage, sometimes by refusing to supply information. Yet the coronavirus crisis requires an effective parliamentary audit of the far-reaching powers placed in the hands of the executive.

The Guardian