Parliament is back. However, its inhabitants are having to adjust to a new way of doing things. While MPs are supposed to be on the estate and are no longer able to intervene in debates remotely, only 50 MPs may occupy the Chamber at any one time and they cannot vote in the traditional manner as the voting lobbies are not deemed Covid-secure. In place of this, the proposal that's been put forward is for a socially distanced, kilometre-long queue through parliament each time there is a vote. MPs are then to file past the left side of the despatch box table to vote Aye, and to the right side to vote No.
The proposals have led to complaints from both opposition and Conservative MPs. At present, there is no accommodation for MPs who need to shield themselves – under the government's proposals they simply would not get a vote. It's this issue that is causing the most concern among Tory backbenchers and there is a hint of some compromise before the day is out. Even if this happens, there are plenty of opposition MPs who take issue with the entire arrangement and believe virtual voting should continue. As Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg is very reluctant to allow electronic voting to continue, in part because it could set a precedent for the future – meaning MPs do not have to be in parliament to perform their duties.
However, a number of senior Tories believe the current proposal simply isn't workable. Rather than rebel when they are asked to vote on it this afternoon, several plan to play ball because they believe the system will fall apart on its own accord. The lengthy procedure could become particularly arduous if in the coming days and weeks, opposition MPs push lots of divisions. The amount of time it will take out of ministers's day could force the government to reconsider. In the meantime, long queues will do little to boost morale among Tory backbenchers who find themselves at loggerheads with No. 10 on both plans for a two week quarantine and to keep the two metre social distancing rule in place.
But the most pressing problem is one of optics. Part of the reason the government has been so keen to get MPs back to parliament is to set an example to the public to get back to work. Scenes of MPs queuing around the block suggest that rather than a simple act, making a workplace Covid-secure can be a complicated and bruising process.