The week ahead in Parliament

Queue Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Is queuing the way of the future? Many MPs hope not

Parliament's new normal is still not very normal. True, bill committees are back, with the Finance Bill, the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Immigration Bill among those under detailed scrutiny in the larger committee rooms, where social distancing is possible.

This week also sees the return of Ten Minute Rule bills, with a couple of interesting legislative proposals on regulating London pedicabs and on local energy. These are often put down more to make a point than in any serious hope that they will become legislation, but it has happened in living memory.

The not-normal bit is voting. They can't vote at all in the House of Lords, which means that the. Most significant phases of Lords proceedings, Report Stage consideration of bills, where amendments are often made, and where the government sometimes loses, are not happening, and probably won't happen till September.

The Commons does have a voting procedure, but it is so unwieldy that most MPs loath it, and the 40-plus minutes of queuing round the Parliamentary Estate involved - which is why Monday will see an emergency debate on the conduct of proceedings, and quite possibly further attempts to bring back the online voting system.

As usual during the pandemic, some of the most significant events will be ministerial statements or urgent questions, dropped into the schedule at a few hours' notice.

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Boris Johnson could regret virtual Parliament victory

MPs lining up to vote in the Commons chamber Image copyright HoC
Image caption MPs lining up to vote

This is what a working majority feels like.

The government's emphatic defeat of moves to bring back online voting for MPs unable to attend Westminster during the pandemic shows that it can comfortably see off the kind of rebellion that plagued Theresa May, and always threatened David Cameron (in his post-coalition mini-majority phase).

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The 'Mogg Conga'

MPs lining up to vote in the Commons chamber Image copyright HoC
Image caption MPs lining up to vote

Comedy gold…. In theory, what one MP called the "Mogg Conga," the Commons new socially distanced method of voting is perfectly simple.

A queue of honourable members snaked around the Palace of Westminster, back as far as the parliamentary offices at Portcullis House (quite a long way!) and slowly filed into their Chamber, marching left of the Mace to vote "Aye" and right of the Mace to vote "No" and should produce a steady flow of votes - simple in theory, but the practice was a bit messier.

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The week ahead in Parliament

Sir Lindsay Hoyle Image copyright EPA
Image caption The Speaker says he won't allow MPs to crowd in to the chamber

The House of Commons that resumes business on Tuesday will be neither virtual, nor normal.

After several weeks when MPs were actively discouraged from attending Westminster, they will be back, but the strictures of social distancing will mean normal parliamentary socialising - chats in the Tearoom, coffee-filled gossip sessions in Portcullis House, meals in the Members' Dining Room, and all the rest, will still not be possible.

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Liaison Committee will challenge Boris Johnson's style

Boris Johnson Image copyright UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Image caption Boris Johnson at PMQs

Since Tony Blair first appeared before the Commons Liaison Committee back in July 2002, the bi-annual questioning of the PM by select committee chairs has tended to disappoint.

Quiet, civilised and focussed on detail, while PMQs is (or used to be, pre-COVID-19) shouty and confrontational, a media reared on the knockabout in the Commons chamber found the 90-minute sessions a let-down.

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Role of PM's inquisitor to be decided

Theresa May addresses MPs Image copyright PA
Image caption Theresa May appeared before MPs on the Liaison Committee several times

Should the prime minister choose the individual who leads his (theoretically) twice-yearly questioning?

Since the days of Tony Blair, the prime minister has faced regular questioning by the Commons Liaison Committee, the super-committee made up of the MPs who chair the select committees.

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The week ahead in Parliament

Westminster Image copyright PA Media

Week four of the virtual Parliament has passed, and since going online, MPs have held innumerable select committee meetings by video link, the Commons has seen the first remote maiden speech, the first remote personal statement, several online divisions (including the first examples of MPs accidentally voting the wrong way) and at least one all-virtual debate - on an innocuous statutory instrument on pension enrolment.

So the lockdown-beating measures to keep Parliament debating and scrutinising and law-making have proved pretty successful - up to a point.

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The week ahead in Parliament

Westminster Image copyright Reuters

With MPs now able to vote remotely, there's a bit more edge to the House of Commons as it returns from the bank holiday break - and this week's agenda could provide a number of opportunities for Honourable Members to try out their new system, most probably on the order on abortion in Northern Ireland (see Tuesday).

Meanwhile, Noble Lords look enviously at the virtual chamber of the Commons. Their own efforts at remote proceedings have been less sure-footed, and, lacking a remote voting system, and targeted by briefings, now officially denied, that the government intends to clip their wings, and force their over-65 members to retire, there's a sense of trouble brewing on the red benches.

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The week ahead in Parliament

Westminster Image copyright Reuters

With the special bank holiday to mark the 75th anniversary of VE day on Friday, it's a truncated Westminster week.

And with the parties still seeking to avoid contested votes, until a remote voting system is perfected, the biggest events are likely to be ministerial statements and appearances at select committees - culminating in the likely return to PMQs of Boris Johnson, for his first direct confrontation with new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

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The week ahead in Parliament

House of Commons Image copyright PA Media

The combination of an overwhelming national crisis and the technological limitations of the new model virtual Parliament have made Westminster a very different place.

Party politics is an undercurrent rather than a riptide. MPs are strongly discouraged from coming in, and the resulting virtual question times and statements are very different.

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