LONDON — In 1858, during what became known as the Great Stink, work was curtailed by an overpowering smell of sewage from the adjacent River Thames. During World War II, the threat from German bombers forced evacuation to a nearby building.
Now, the British Parliament is embarking on another temporary retreat from its centuries-old home, this time into cyberspace.
After an absence of several weeks, lawmakers are anxious to return to the job of holding to account a government with sweeping emergency powers that faces criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet, few places are less suited to social distancing than a 19th century, wood-paneled debating chamber where lawmakers routinely squeeze onto overcrowded benches to secure a seat.
So a scramble is underway to make history by converting an ancient institution into a virtual one, with a decision perhaps as early as Thursday.
“It is unprecedented for Parliament not to sit in the chamber or to meet collectively in an alternative place,” said Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, a research organization focused on Parliament and a co-author of a report on holding a virtual legislature.
For some, that cannot come soon enough, because many lawmakers felt sidelined as the hospitalization of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who contracted the virus, left a power vacuum at the heart of the British government. Now convalescing at the prime minister’s country residence, Chequers, Johnson has deputized his functions to the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.
Ministers also hold daily news conferences, while lawmakers have few similar opportunities to raise the concerns they might have about shortages of basic equipment, like face masks and body gowns, at hospitals and care homes.
“At this time of national emergency, we need a functioning Parliament to hold ministers to account on their response to the coronavirus,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party. “There are too many questions that have gone unanswered.”
Caroline Lucas, a lawmaker for the Green Party, argued that, given available technology, the only thing missing was political will. And Alastair Campbell, once a close aide to the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, posted an exhortation on Twitter to bring back Parliament, using a mild expletive to underline his impatience.
The lack of a visible parliamentary presence is all the more jarring after a period when British lawmakers grabbed global attention as they feuded over how to leave the European Union.
Parliament was such a focal point of opposition that Johnson tried to suspend sittings for five weeks during the Brexit crisis, only to be rebuked by Britain’s Supreme Court. The impasse over withdrawal from the European Union was finally broken when Johnson won a big majority in December’s general election.
But going online is not easy for an institution so steeped in tradition that casting a vote requires lawmakers to pass through a narrow lobby where their names are recorded by officials in formal dress.
Paradoxically, the job of facilitating one of the biggest revolutions in the workings of Parliament falls largely to the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man whose mannerisms are so self-consciously old-fashioned that he has been nicknamed “the honorable member for the 18th century.”
Some lawmakers are queasy about the very idea of a virtual Parliament. “The House of Commons met when air raids were going on in the war,” David Davis, a former Cabinet minister, told the newspaper The Observer. “I think it needs to be reconstituted even if it means members of Parliament being tested every day.”
But that would send an odd signal to the public, given that members of Parliament come from all over the country and the government is unlikely to want to encourage travel soon, especially for large gatherings.
As for the House of Lords, the unelected second chamber, many of its members are former politicians who are at high risk because of how old they are — the average was 70 in 2019.
Already, some select committees have used technology to hold hearings virtually, proving that teleworking is possible despite unreliable Wi-Fi, background noise and the inevitable failure of some participants to mute their microphones.
Widening this out to the full chamber of the House of Commons, which has 650 members, raises more issues, however.
One possibility is to have the speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, sit in splendid isolation in the chamber, moderating proceedings via a video link.
Alternatively, Hoyle might be joined by a government minister and a political opponent, with lawmakers using a messaging system to intervene in the debate to ask questions.
“I recognize the urgent need to put new arrangements in place and will do everything I can to ensure the House is presented with the opportunity to take a decision on this matter sooner rather than later,” Hoyle said in a statement.
Lawmakers should be able to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions — the raucous weekly sessions where the head of the government answers sometimes hostile inquiries — and other matters by video link, with the proceedings streamed live, he added.
Longer-term challenges are likely to include how to manage legislation and whether to introduce digital voting. The Hansard Society report co-written by Fox notes that voting apps exist with verification options to ensure security, though she said she thought that lawmakers would be wary of any permanent changes that lessened the need to visit Parliament in person.
For the immediate future, the hope is that agreement can be reached across party lines Thursday, allowing the rules to be changed without needing a vote with at least 40 lawmakers present. If there is consensus, Fox said, it would be possible to wave a plan through.
So, if Parliament resumes next week as scheduled, it will likely be an empty, echoing, imitation of the normally boisterous chamber.
In preparation for the new digital dawn, lawmakers might want to take advice on how to look their best online from Jeremy Vine, a prominent broadcaster, who noted on Twitter that “viewers spend three seconds looking at your face, then they scour the background for something more interesting.”