Isabel Hardman

Why is No. 10 snubbing the Commons?

Why is No. 10 snubbing the Commons?
(Photo by Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament)
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The Speaker was annoyed again today when the government only offered the Commons a Covid update after the Health Secretary's press briefing yesterday. Labour hauled vaccines minister Maggie Throup to the chamber for an urgent question. Before she had a chance to answer, Lindsay Hoyle scolded her superiors.

'This is not acceptable and, as I have warned the government, in those circumstances, I will allow the House the earliest opportunity to hear from a minister: in this case by an urgent question,' he said. He added that Sajid Javid should not have been speculating about whether MPs should wear masks without coming to talk to MPs themselves in the Commons: 'I understand that yesterday the Secretary of State made an announcement, not just about important policy matters but he also set out his views about how members should behave in this Chamber — that is to say whether they should wear a mask. Don't do it from Downing Street, do it to the members that he's talking to!'

He added a further threat that while he would work with any minister who wanted to avoid this kind of 'embarrassing situation' in the future, if it continues 'we will see more urgent questions [and] the government's business will get blocked. It's not what I want, I want to work together, but I want due respect for the members who are elected to this chamber.'

Throup argued in response that the government had made its policy announcement about antivirals by written ministerial statement yesterday, but that the Secretary of State had wanted to appeal directly to people to come forward for their booster jab, and that's why he held the press conference.

She then had to answer — or as it happened, not answer — a demand from Health Select Committee chair Jeremy Hunt that she be allowed to sit at the cabinet table in the same way as her predecessor Nadhim Zahawi did. Throup modestly declined the invitation to ask for a promotion. But Hunt did highlight a little-noted shift, which is that the vaccines minister isn't considered important enough to attend cabinet anymore. 

There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that when the reshuffle took place, Downing Street was very much in pandemic demob happy mode, with the Prime Minister and his team focusing squarely on what life after Covid was going to be like. The second is that Sajid Javid is a health secretary who has a markedly better relationship with No. 10 than his predecessor Matt Hancock. Therefore the vaccines minister doesn't need to be brought directly to cabinet so that the Prime Minister has a chance of finding out what's going on.

Neither are particularly inspiring reasons, not least given that Throup was having to explain why people aren't coming forward for their boosters. NHS bosses are keen to emphasise that they're ready and waiting to jab arms and that the message needs to be clearer. Downing Street seems to have accepted that, too, hence last night's press conference. If that briefing was a realisation that ministers have become too relaxed about another winter surge, then it would explain why they were in a rush to tell the public and let MPs wait. But that rush and the resulting trouble in parliament hardly suggest we're in for a well-managed winter.