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The day Westminster forgot the pandemic

by editor

LONDON — Pandemic? What pandemic?

After 18 months of empty seats and mute button fails, Wednesday’s recall of parliament was significant not only for the substance of the discussion, but for the manner of its meeting.

Orders allowing MPs to take part in House of Commons proceedings remotely because of the coronavirus crisis lapsed last month, meaning they had to turn up and speak in person if they wanted to contribute to a debate on Afghanistan. It made for a revealing session — and a packed chamber.

MPs filled the Commons despite all sides asking for “sensible” approach to attendance. There was a buzz about the place which has lacking since the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s hard to dispute that in-person attendance made for a better debate.

It was a test for the two party leaders. Boris Johnson only faced a full Commons for a few months in the wake of his 2019 election triumph and Keir Starmer not at all, since he was only elected Labour leader after COVID struck.

Johnson had a particularly difficult job — and he made it look difficult. He is at his best when he can be an ebullient orator, which was not an option given the subject at hand. All he could do was promise to honor the U.K.’s obligations to Afghanistan over and over, absorbing the anger of a universally outraged Commons. MPs could stand to intervene, meaning Johnson was pressed on key points throughout his statement, while words directed at a live audience met with live responses: murmurs of disapproval or encouragement.

When Johnson offered a vague, offhand reply to a pointed question from his predecessor Theresa May, it provoked audible outrage; a taste of what the prime minister may have to get used to as the Commons continues to meet physically.

Starmer, in contrast, can often seem bloodless and worthy, and it’s perhaps predictable that his style is more suited to such somber occasions. He did, however, show a flash of pugnacity when the foreign secretary (under fire for a summer trip) challenged him to say what he would have done differently. Starmer shot back: “I would not stay on holiday while Kabul was falling.”

But the real value of meeting in person was shown most clearly during a moving speech from Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP and veteran of Afghanistan. MPs sat in total silence, willing him on as his words rang out — and, despite a longstanding convention banning clapping, they could not resist applauding when he sat down. It was a powerful reminder of just how anemic most digital speeches have been.

Later, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace reacted with visible anger as Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy urged the government to show “humility” — an opportunity for him to protest, and for Nandy to feel sure she had hit the mark. It’s exactly the kind of simple political dialogue which has been missing in Westminster for more than a year.

There was one big reminder of the pandemic, and a visible new front in the culture wars. Hardly any Conservative MPs wore masks, while most of their Labour counterparts did. One Tory MP argued his own side was trying to “set an example” about getting back to normal as “virtually everyone in there is double-jabbed and doing regular tests so it isn’t like being in a supermarket or the Tube.”

That will not provide much reassurance to trade unions representing parliamentary staff, who have called for mask-wearing to be more rigorously enforced, or to those who argue that some virtual provisions should remain in place for MPs with health conditions or caring responsibilities.

Mask wars aside, MPs could not help reverting to old habits, huddling close together and whispering to their neighbors, a far cry from the social distancing enforced for much of the past eighteen months.

Some in Westminster, MPs included, had complained that the recall of parliament over Afghanistan was pointless — a mere platform for grandstanding. But if nothing else, the return of the physical chamber meant it was possible once more to pay attention to “the mood of the House” — and that mood was overwhelmingly a bad one.

It’s hard to read the room if you’re not in it.

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