LONDON — Britain’s extraordinary first “Parliament via Zoom” proceeded Wednesday in rather ordinary fashion, with the usual barbed questions and artful evasion by politicians, plus the addition of awkward views of oversize chins and bookshelves staged as backdrops.
Everything was the same, and everything was a little odd.
Breaking 700 years of tradition, the British Parliament has agreed to serve as a cradle of virtual democracy — to allow members to continue to debate, vote and legislate, but via videoconferencing app, from the safety of their own homes, for the duration of Britain’s coronavirus lockdown.
On Wednesday, there were a few minor technical hiccups. Some lawmakers’ heads were cropped at the eyebrows by the bad framing. Their mics were sometimes too close or too far away, or the internet connection bad, and so voices sounded tinny or muffled or like Darth Vader.
But all in all, for no rehearsals? Not a bad opening matinee.
For centuries, it has been essential for members of Parliament to be present in the Houses of Commons or Lords to vote. That’s why special “division bells” ring out in Westminster’s offices and committee rooms — and many bars — alerting lawmakers they have eight minutes to enter their lobbies, before doors are bolted shut.
Now, instead, they will get a ping on their mobile phones.
Britain is trying out “hybrid proceedings,” where up to 50 lawmakers can be in the House of Commons — spaced six-feet apart on the green leather benches — while another 150 of the 650 members can join by Zoom.
Wednesday’s premier featured the weekly thrust-and-parry session known as “Prime Minister’s Questions,” or PMQs.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stood at the despatch box in place of Boris Johnson, who is recovering from the bout of COVID-19 that put him in the hospital for a week.
In the sparsely populated House of Commons, Raab was quizzed by the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, who was prosecutorial in his questioning, insisting the government was slow to order a lockdown, slow to do widespread testing for the virus, and slow to get vital protective gowns, masks and visors into the hands of front line medical workers.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle called on lawmakers by swiveling his head toward what appeared to be TV monitor and shouting a version of: “We are now going over to Stephen Kinnock. STEPHEN KINNOCK!”
Shouting at a television being a time-honored tradition everywhere.
And then Kinnock, a Labour lawmaker from Wales, popped on the screen for those watching on Parliament TV — including Washington Post reporters — from their homes.
At one point, Hoyle shouted for David Mundell, a Scottish Conservative, who didn’t answer.
“Unable to connect,” the speaker said, perhaps creating a new meme, like the famous “orrrrrder, orrrrder!” from past days. So they moved on.
In another exchange, Peter Bone, a Conservative from Wellingborough, was complaining about his constituents having to live off their overdraft accounts. “What on earth is going on?” Bone demanded. “When are the banks going to work in the nation interest and …”
Then his Zoom link went dead.
Raab said, “I got the gist,” and answered anyway.
Legislatures around the world are sorting out how to proceed during the pandemic. Some — such as the German Bundestag and Irish Dail — are continuing to meet in person but with social distancing measures. Canada’s parliament is trying mix of in-person and virtual, while the U.S. House of Representatives is fighting over a proxy voting proposal.
The Brits showed that it was possible to carry on.
The Guardian newspaper’s Andrew Sparrow observed, “PMQs without 400-odd MPs in the chamber makes everything quieter, calmer, more intelligible and more grown-up … Without the jeering and the aggro, it lacked gladiatorial edge, and frankly it was probably a bit more boring than the old PMQs. But boring is a much underrated virtue in governance.”
Raab was questioned pointedly about the government’s performance during the outbreak.
Labour lawmaker Barry Gardiner stated that the government’s scientific advisory group on emergencies recommended a lockdown at the end of February. “The government claims it has followed scientific advice,” he said. “But it hasn’t, has it?”
Starmer asked Raab how it will be possible to go from the current 18,000 coronavirus tests a day to the 100,000 promised by government by the end of the month.
Raab sought to correct Starmer, pointing out that the “capacity” stands at 40,000.
Starmer wasn’t having it. “I didn’t need correcting, because I gave the figure for actual tests being carried out, which is 18,000,” he said.
At the end of the session, Raab was asked by a Labour lawmaker if Britain would be “drawn into the U.S. president’s disgraceful vendetta against the World Health Organization.”
President Donald Trump has cut off funding to the WHO, because he says the international body sides too closely with China, where the virus first exploded onto the scene.
Raab said Britain supported international efforts, and was a “leading player, whether it’s on vaccines or supporting vulnerable countries — in helping to get through what is a global crisis.”
He said the WHO has “has a role to play, it’s not perfect, no international institution is, we do need to work to reform it. But we made clear we consider it an important part of the international response.”
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The Washington Post’s Karla Adam contributed to this report.