The Guardian view on Parliament’s return: in dark days, shine a light | Editorial | Opinion

Parliament’s return this week is overdue. Since MPs left Westminster on 25 March, the country has been battered by the full force of the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 16,000 people have died. The health service has been stretched as never before. The economy has shuddered almost to a halt. Sweeping regulations have been introduced, affecting everyone. Normal life has been transformed. And the prime minister has been hospitalised.

In such a crisis, parliament would normally have been recalled far earlier. It should have happened this time too. The virtual proceedings that are expected to start on Tuesdaytomorrow could have been agreed in late March and implemented soon after, as has happened in businesses the world over. Parliament’s absence has instead meant that, for nearly a month, all crucial decisions have been taken by ministers and officials behind closed doors.

During this time, ministers have governed mainly by press conference. Message management has been tightly controlled. In these circumstances, crucial issues of concern have often been brushed aside. These include casual prior preparation of the kind alleged over the weekend, continuing shortages of personal protective equipment, neglect of social care, reluctance to cooperate with European neighbours and, most recently, the terms of any exit strategy. Not surprisingly, this system suits ministers fine. But it fosters bad government, not good. Among other defects, it suggests ministers do not trust the public, that the cabinet is divided over next steps and that Britain is governed by incompetent or feeble leaders who are afraid to take decisions, especially in Boris Johnson’s absence.

While public opinion still appears broadly in favour of the measures taken by the government, the attempt to frame the daily announcements as articulating a united and uncontroversial national effort is misleading. Ministers have been right to emphasise the scientific basis of their decisions, and correct to judge that the nation accepts the science-based need for strict measures. But ministers have simultaneously sought to brush aside too much that should also be decided rationally. It is increasingly obvious, for instance, that ministers are trying to co-opt the public’s unified instincts against the pandemic into an acceptance of the government’s reckless and irrational approach to the Brexit transition.

The debates and questions that have surged through the country about Covid-19 policy are about to move back into Westminster. When they return on Tuesdaytomorrow, MPs will make their main proceedings in the Commons chamber virtual, with around 120 MPs taking part in debates, of whom around 50 will be in the chamber, observing physical distancing, with another 70 participating virtually. This is sensible. It echoes the way parliaments in Ireland and Spain have done things. It also does something to protect against the mischievous charge that there is one law for MPs, who can go to work, and another for those who cannot.

But it is not ideal. Britain has 650 MPs, not 120. A fair way must be found to allow all MPs, with their multiple local and other concerns, to be heard. The danger with the new process is that it will be controlled by party whips. It is therefore particularly important in such times that Commons committees play a more prominent scrutiny role. It is also essential that parliament continues to take meaningful votes, by electronic means, on extending the lockdown, and systematically addresses the difficult issues raised by the way the lockdown is working, especially in economic and welfare policy. In dark days, parliamentary democracy must shine the strongest possible light on the questions that face us all.

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