There is a fairground spookiness to Parliament at the moment. Most areas are boarded up or deserted. The long, high vaulted corridors of the Palace of Westminster are so quiet you can actually hear the nibs of the security guards scratching.
But amid the unnerving hush, two eye-popping events played out yesterday in the House of Commons chamber which look set to create significant political noise in the crucial weeks ahead.
The first was the inaugural hybrid Parliament which lets MPs operate ‘virtually’. Thanks to the ingenuity of Commons officials, MPs were able to grill ministers from the comfort of their own homes via television screens erected around the chamber.
While this may not have been what Charles Barry or Augustus Pugin had in mind when they drew up plans for the old place, the experiment was a soaraway success. A timely reassurance, amid the public chaos of coronavirus, that democracy’s greasy axles still turn.
There is a fairground spookiness to Parliament at the moment. Most areas are boarded up or deserted
The second was the arrival of a new Labour leader doing something we have not seen the opposition do for over five years: Actually holding the Government to account.
Dull dog Sir Keir Starmer may have been playing to an empty House, but his debut at the Despatch Box was a surprise sparkler, his six questions doing more to pin down the Government over its handling of events than his party has all year.
Amid the ashes of Jeremy Corbyn’s failed socialist agenda, to those of us there watching it felt as though we might be witnessing the rise of a new political force. And at a time when scrutiny is more valuable than ever, that’s surely of benefit to everyone.
And to think Starmer looked a mildly rattled creature at the start. Entering the chamber five minutes before the midday opening, he sat alone, smiling awkwardly and drinking from two different water bottles. When he rose to speak he exchanged opening pleasantries with his opponent Dominic Raab. What a refreshing break from the sourness of the Corbyn years.
Like all good lawyers, Sir Keir built his case up slowly. He took Raab to task early on over testing numbers. I say took to task, but Sir Keir was a model of calm and reasonableness throughout. This is how prosecutors work. They probe, they tease, they sweat their opponent steadily into making mistakes. Raab played the jumpy witness, his face etched with uncertainty over which alley he was about to get dragged down next.
Whenever Raab deflected, Sir Keir would adjust his stance. His hopeless predecessor, who relied so heavily on a prepared script, simply couldn’t do this. At one point, Starmer got Raab to admit he didn’t know how many care workers had died of coronavirus. ‘Next week I expect a better answer,’ he said calmly putting the acting PM in his place.
Despite the hollow atmosphere and yards of black-and-yellow social distancing tape around the chamber – there were fewer than 30 MPs present – those who showed up took to the occasion gamely. There was a cheery, can-do spirit among members. Naturally, though, there were prangs. The first came straight after Sir Keir sat down. We were due the first question via the video link system from ex-Scottish secretary David Mundell. Necks craned to witness the breaking of this bold new dawn. Cue rolling kettle drums. The eight new television screens around the chamber briefly flickered into life. Suddenly, the flat Lancastrian vowels of Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle broke sheepishly over the Commons speaker system. ‘David Mundell,’ he said, his voiced laced with the disappointment, ‘has been unable t’connect.’
Mr Speaker gave a weary sigh. He had been dreading this all day. Call it male intuition but I’ve got Sir Lindsay down as a technophobe. Sir Peter Bone (Con, Wellingborough) was another faller.
Sir Peter, nostrils flaring down the webcam, was railing about the behaviour of the banks since the lockdown began. ‘What on earth is going on,’ he wailed, before falling prey to the internet gremlins. ‘I think he has been cut off in his prime,’ sighed Sir Lindsay.
Generation game: MP Andrew Gwynne takes part at home with grandson Lyle, aged one
The House delighted in the momentary light relief. Sir Desmond Swayne (Con, New Forest W) cackled like a well-fed hyena.
Amid the odd technological mishap, a few stage-manager notes, if I may. Some members may have overdone the grooming a tad. Luke Evans (Con, Bosworth), who looks as though he rarely spurns a chance to catch himself in a reflective surface, had enough oil in his hair to deep-fry a sack of spuds. Others, such as Labour Welsh spokesman Nia Griffith, need to look into the camera when speaking.
As for Angela Eagle (Lab, Wallasey), she might want to invest in a tripod. Her camera was shaking around so much she looked like she was trapped in a Quentin Tarantino flick.
Incidentally, there was a noteworthy sight five minutes from the end when a blast from the recent past entered the chamber. As Jeremy Corbyn quietly shuffled up the step and took his old place alone at the rear of the chamber, arranging his papers and juggling between two sets of spectacles, his presence went almost entirely unnoticed. But then time moves on quickly in politics. Just look what happened yesterday. A Parliament reborn twice over.
At last we have an Opposition: New Labour leader Keir Starmer tears into Dominic Raab over coronavirus testing and PPE failures in first virtual PMQs – as Foreign Secretary blames ‘logistical’ issues
By James Tapsfield, Political Editor For MailOnline
Keir Starmer tore into Dominic Raab over coronavirus testing and PPE blunders today as he made his debut as Labour leader at the first ‘virtual’ PMQs.
In his first Parliamentary set-piece since replacing Jeremy Corbyn at the start of the month Sir Keir made life distinctly uncomfortable for the Foreign Secretary as he faced probing questions over the Government’s battle plan.
Standing in for the recuperating Boris Johnson in the Commons, Mr Raab was on the backfoot as he defended the painful progress towards the target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month.
But after Sir Keir pointed out that the number of checks being carried out daily is still less than half the potential capacity of 40,000, he acknowledged that many of those eligible had ‘transport problems’ about getting to testing centres.
Mr Raab said ‘mobile labs’ and the army were being deployed to try to get the numbers up, and dismissed warnings that the government is doomed to miss the goal, saying there could be an ‘exponential’ increase before the self-imposed deadline.
Sir Keir also hit out at bungling over life-threatening shortages of PPE for the health service and care workers, complaining that a swathe of companies had offered to help government with supplies and been ignored.
Westminster-watchers were quick to praise Sir Keir, a former barrister used to thinking on his feet, compared to Mr Corbyn, whose PMQs performances were often drab and rarely strayed from his written script.
Among those with praise was former Tory chancellor George Osborne, who said: ‘Watching PMQs there’s one clear conclusion: after a five-year absence, Britain has an opposition again.’
In another day of coronavirus turmoil:
- The UK has announced 759 more hospital deaths from the coronavirus today, taking Britain’s total number of victims to 18,094;
- The government is facing questions after a top civil servant dropped his claim that snubbing EU procurement scheme on coronavirus PPE was ‘political’
- Empty 4,000-bed Nightingale hospital turns away 30 ‘life or death’ coronavirus patients from other packed London wards because it lacks nurses and has only treated a total of 40 people
- Leaked memo reveals coronavirus tests given to NHS staff to let them return to work are flawed and gave false all-clear readings
- An RAF plane carrying vital PPE lands in Britain but it only has half the promised 84 tonnes of equipment
Standing in for Boris Johnson in the Commons, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (left) defended the painful progress towards the target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. Sir Keir Starmer (right) also hit out at bungling over life-threatening shortages of PPE
Care minister Helen Whately is mauled over failings on PPE, care homes, frontline workers who have died and medic testing numbers
Care Minister Helen Whately was savaged during a series of brutal interviews this morning as she struggled to provide answers to key questions on the supply of PPE, deaths of frontline workers and testing errors.
Ms Whately suffered four car crash grillings after she was sent out to bat for the government by Downing Street.
She was hammered by ITV Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan for failing to know how many health staff have died from coronavirus.
It was the second interview between the pair in less than a week with Ms Whately’s previous appearance seeing her criticised for laughing after Mr Morgan confronted her over the number of people dying in care homes during the current crisis.
Ms Whately also faced a tough time today during separate interviews with BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and Sky News.
She was forced to defend the government’s record on the supply of vital PPE for the NHS amid fears shortages are putting the lives of frontline workers at risk.
She insisted ministers are moving as quickly as possible to boost supply as she spelled out the challenge of finding the ‘billions’ of items needed.
The Tory frontbencher was unable to explain why current testing numbers are so far below the available capacity.
The bitter clashes came amid increasing questions about the government’s approach to testing – which many believe is the only way out of the lockdown crippling the economy.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced yesterday that the number of drive-through sites will be increased from 26 to 50.
Meanwhile, ministers have been implementing proposals to send swabs direct to care homes, with ‘mobile delivery’ methods for the checks also being looked at.
Mr Hancock told the Commons – where a limited numbers are physically attending while others use video conferencing – this afternoon that testing demand had been ‘lower than expected’.
‘I’ve set the goal of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month and I’m delighted to say that the expansion of capacity is ahead of plans, even though demand has, thus far, been lower than expected,’ he said.
‘We are therefore ramping up the availability of this testing and expanding who is eligible for testing, and making it easier to access the tests.’
Mr Hancock said ‘contact tracing’ of those testing positive will be reintroduced when the number of cases falls, but that could take a few weeks.
At PMQ earlier, Sir Keir said the UK has been ‘very slow’ on testing.
He added: ‘The Health Secretary made a very important commitment to 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, but yesterday the figure for actual tests was 18,000 a day and that was down from Monday, which was 19,000 tests a day.
‘We’re way behind the curve and the end of the month is a week tomorrow. So, what does the First Secretary expect to happen in the next eight days to get us from 18,000 tests a day to 100,000 tests a day?’
Mr Raab said testing capacity was now up to 40,000 a day and will increase ‘exponentially’ by the end of the month
He added: ‘I do have to just correct him. Our capacity for tests is now at 40,000 per day, so I think that is an incredibly important milestone.
‘Of course, he is right to say that in the final week that will require a big increase.
‘But, of course, with a project like this, it does require an exponential increase in the final days and the final week of the programme.’
Sir Keir pointed out that frontline workers who have symptoms of coronavirus, or a family member displaying signs, must self-isolate.
He added: ‘To get a necessary test, they are then instructed to travel to a testing centre, which is often very many miles away.
Speaking from her home in Kent this morning Helen Whately appeared on Good Morning Britain
The Commons was sitting with just a few MPs physically present today – while scores of others dial in over video conference
Tony Blair says decisions on how lockdown could be eased must be taken NOW as warns over ‘void’ while PM recovers
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair (pictured above) has today claimed that Boris Johnson’s government is ‘overwhelmed’
Tony Blair today insisted decisions on how to ease the coronavirus lockdown must be taken now – warning ministers cannot allow a ‘void’ while Boris Johnson recovers from the disease.
The former PM said the government had been ‘behind the curve’, underlining his demand for mass testing and a fundamental reorganisation of Whitehall, with experts being pulled in from business to help a war-style response.
He also raised concerns over the government’s insistence that an ‘exit strategy’ cannot be laid out now. Mr Blair said Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and senior ministers must make crucial choices on releasing schools, regions and sectors to avoid huge damage to the economy.
Mr Blair waded into the row amid signs of Cabinet divisions over when and how to loosen the draconian social distancing curbs threatening to wipe a third off GDP and destroy millions of jobs.
‘Now there’s an obvious problem with that system. Not all care workers will have access to a car, because they’ve got symptoms or family members have got symptoms they obviously can’t use public transport, so it is little wonder we’re seeing these pictures of half-empty testing centres.’
Mr Raab said: ‘It is about demand. We need to encourage those who are able to take the test to come forward.
‘But he is right to say that it is also about distribution, and some of the logistical and frankly transport problems that people particularly some of those that he described will have in terms of getting to the tests.
‘So we are working with the local resilience forums to make sure we can distribute the tests as effectively as possible.
‘We have got mobile labs to go to some of those areas that are hard to reach. We will be using the army, who have made along with the other key workers an incredible contribution.’
Sir Keir also raised ‘countless’ problems with supplies of PPE for frontline workers, saying ‘the least they deserve is the right protective equipment’.
Labour has been contacted by 36 British companies that say they have offered to help the government sourcing kit, but been ignored.
‘This has been a stress test of our resilience and the Government plan is clearly not working,’ he said.
‘There’s a pattern emerging here – we were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and now slow to take up these offers from British firms.
Mr Raab responded: ‘He will know that getting the PPE to where it needs to be is a massive international challenge that every country faces globally from China to Germany, and we have done a huge effort to provide, for example, the ventilators which have bolstered the NHS through this incredibly difficult time.
‘Since the start of the outbreak, we’ve delivered one billion items of personal protective equipment and tens of millions have been distributed via the devolved administrations.’
Earlier, care minister Helen Whately was unable to explain why current testing numbers are so far below the available capacity.
Pressed repeatedly on the issue on ITV’s GMB, Ms Whately said: ‘We know that testing is really important and so we have been working hard to ramp up the testing capacity in the country.’
Presenter Piers Morgan interrupted and said test numbers had actually fallen in recent days, adding: ‘I don’t want to hear about your ramping up. Care Minister, with respect, you are not ramping it up… you are going backwards. Do you see?’
Ms Whately then said the UK had ‘trebled’ the number of tests which can be done prompting Mr Morgan to exclaim: ‘You are not doing them! You are doing 18,000 a day which is less than you were doing 12 days ago.’
The Care Minister then asked Mr Morgan to ‘let met me finish speaking’ but the exasperated TV presenter said: ‘You keep talking about capacity. I am asking you about how many you have done.’
Andrew Gwynne, Labour MP for Denton & Reddish, watching PMQs with one-year-old grandson Lyle
Technical glitches, questionable wallpaper and one very keen young assistant: MPs juggle politics with babysitting as they take part in historic first virtual Commons from the comfort of their homes
It was an historic moment as British MPs sat in a ‘virtual Parliament’ for the first time ever as the coronavirus pandemic rages in Britain.
But politicians taking part in Prime Minister’s Questions from the safety and comfort of their own homes were upstaged by their grandchildren and their interior design sense – or lack of it.
Only 50 MPs were allowed in the House of Commons chamber as Dominic Raab faced off against new Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer in a rather more serene atmosphere than the usual cacophonous wall of noise.
The rest tuned in and were able to ask questions via Zoom, thanks to work overseen by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, providing a sneak glimpse into their homes in their constituencies.
This window into their world showed us Andrew Gwynne’s extremely youthful assistant, the Denton Reddish MP’s one-year-old grandson Lyle.
Elsewhere SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford showed off his balls: behind him in shot as he asked a question were signed memorabilia from his beloved Hibernian, including two signed footballs.
And while many MPs including Stephen Crabb and Angela Eagle showed off their bookcases, Don Valley MP Nick Fletcher treated viewers to his floral wallpaper, which complemented his choice of suit.
Acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey attracted comment for his choice in art, while Labour’s Stephen Kinnock adapted to the occasion by following the action using his tablet propped up by a pair of trainers.
The session marked Sir Keir’s first PMQs since replacing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader earlier this month.
Overall the technology appeared to work well, but the session was not without technical problems. David Mundell, the Tory former Scottish Secretary, was due to ask a question but Speaker Lindsay Hoyle informed MPs ‘we have been unable to connect’ to his home in his Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale seat.
Peter Bone was later cut off as he finished asking a question about the behaviour of the banks, with Mr Raab smiling and saying he had got ‘the gist’ of the question.
With just 50 MPs allowed on the famous green benches the vast majority of parliamentarians who would usually provide a cacophonous background to proceedings mainly followed and asked questions from home
SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford showing off signed memorabilia from his beloved Hibernian, with two footballs clearly seen behind him
Co-ordination? Don Valley MP Nick Fletcher had perhaps the most vibrant background, with a floral patterned wallpaper almost matching his suit
The Labour leader and Boris Johnson ‘s stand-in were among the few MPs in the chamber for Prime Minister’s Questions’ this afternoon as the hybrid legislature met for the first time
Taking the place of Mr Johnson, who is recovering from coronavirus at Chequers, Mr Raab said the PM was ‘making a good recovery and is in good spirits’
The session marked Sir Keir’s first PMQs since replacing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader earlier this month
Peter Bone was later cut off as he finished asking a question about the behaviour of the banks, with Mr Raab smiling and saying he had got ‘the gist’ of the question
Order in the house! Conservative politician Stephen Crabb was one of several MPs to position himself in front of a bookcase to ask a question during PMQs
Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey and a former minister, also went for the bookshelf look at her home in Wirral
Acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey attracted comment for his choice in art …
…while Labour MP Stephen Kinnock shared this photo of his IPad stacked against a pair of trainers as he got to work today
UK announces 759 more coronavirus deaths taking total to 18,100 amid fears true number could be 41,000
The UK has announced 759 more hospital deaths from the coronavirus today, taking Britain’s total number of victims to 18,094.
And Health Secretary Matt Hancock says the country is in the ‘peak’ of the virus outbreak and authorities are watching with bated breath for the statistics to fall.
He claimed capacity for testing and contact-tracing – tracking down people close to infected patients – is being ‘ramped up’ for the UK to start to move out of lockdown when the time is right.
A further 665 people have died in England’s NHS hospitals and more deaths were recorded in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland overnight.
More confusion has emerged over Department of Health handling of statistics as the true increase from yesterday was 763 but a spokesperson could not account for the four missing from the official count.
An estimate based on wider-ranging statistics has claimed the coronavirus outbreak may have killed more than 41,000 people already when non-hospital deaths are included.
An analysis of backdated data by the Financial Times has predicted that, by the time care home deaths and unrecorded hospital fatalities are added up, it could emerge that 41,102 people had died by April 21. The official toll was 17,337.
Meanwhile the National Records of Scotland revealed in a bombshell report today that the true scale of its coronavirus deaths is 79 per cent larger than government statistics show – a third of all people dying with the virus are dying in care homes.
The National Records data adjusted the total number of victims in Scotland to 1,616, by which time only 903 had been officially announced. 537 of them died in homes.
Ahead of PMQs Labour former minister Kevin Brennan experienced technical difficulties during Welsh Questions.
Much of his question broadcast in the chamber from his Cardiff West constituency was inaudible, which prompted some laughter.
Speaker Sir Lindsay said: ‘I hope the Secretary of State can make the most of that question, the line did go down.’
Mr Hart said he got the ‘general gist’ of the question about the coronavirus.
Taking the place of Mr Johnson at PMQs, who is recovering from coronavirus at Chequers, Mr Raab said the PM was ‘making a good recovery and is in good spirits’.
After saying the nation owed a ‘debt of gratitude’ to the NHS he added: ‘Thank you Mr Speaker for all your efforts to ensure parliament can meet and apply the scrutiny to the government that we expect and we embrace.
‘This house meets in challenging times, together we can and we will defeat this virus.’
Taking to his feet for the first time, Sir Keir sent his best wishes ‘for a full and speedy recovery’ to Mr Johnson.
But he soon got down to business, laying into the Government’s testing figures.
He said: ‘The First Secretary says that there is capacity for 40,000 tests a day and I think it’s really important that we fully understand what the First Secretary just said.
‘Because that means that the day before yesterday, 40,000 tests could have been carried but only 18,000 tests were actually carried out.
‘Now, all week I heard from the frontline, from care workers who are frankly desperate for tests for their residents and for themselves, desperate.
‘They would expect every test to be used every day for those that need them.’
Mr Raab replied: ‘It is about demand, we need to encourage those who are able to take the test to come forward.
David Mundell, the Tory former Scottish Secretary, was due to ask a question but Speaker Lindsay Hoyle informed MPs ‘we have been unable to connect’ to his home in his Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale seat
Ahead of PMQs Labour former minister Kevin Brennan experienced technical difficulties during Welsh Questions
Keeping it subtle: West Bromwich East MP Nicola Richards showed off pot plants, photos and books in her neatly arranged living room
‘He is right to say it is also about distribution, and some of the logistical and frankly transport challenges that people, particularly some of those that he described, will have in terms of getting to the tests.
‘We are working with the local resilience forums to make sure that we can distribute the tests as effectively as possible.
‘I do think it is important to have a target and to drive towards a target. We are making good progress, we’re confident we’ll meet it.’
Sir Keir said: ‘Can the First Secretary tell us how many NHS workers have now died from coronavirus and how many social workers have now died from coronavirus?’
Mr Raab replied: ‘On the latest figures, my understanding is that 69 people have died within the NHS of coronavirus. I don’t have the precise figure for care homes, they’re more difficult to establish in relation to care home workers as opposed to care home residents.’
After their to-and-fro it was the chance for smaller party leaders and backbench MPs to ask questions of Mr Raab.
Brentford and Isleworth Labour MP Ruth Cadbury showed off her passion for art – and a map of the Thames – a stone’s throw from where she lives – as she joined the Commons sitting
Labour MP Yvette Cooper seen during the ‘hybrid’ sitting, with a white wall with a door visible in the background
And viewers tuning in to watch the debate live were treated to a little insight into their lives at home with sporting memorabilia, sketched comedy caricatures, traditional upholstery and some bold wallpaper among the highlights.
Labour MP Stephen Kinnock even offered his own alternative take on the term ‘cabinet business’, balancing his iPad against a pair of Adidas trainers on a chest of drawers.
While many MPs chose to play it safe and appear in front of a pedestrian-looking white wall, others clearly chose the backdrop to reflect a little of their personality.
Hastings and Rye Tory MP Sally-Ann Hart appeared in front of a gold-framed oil painting, a brass candelabra and some luxurious-looking curtains as she asked a question remotely during Prime Minister’s Questions.
Meanwhile Brentford and Isleworth Labour MP Ruth Cadbury showed off her passion for art with a series of paintings and a map of the Thames – a stone’s throw from where she lives – as she joined the Commons sitting.
Perhaps wishing to show off just how busy life as an MP is, there were a fair amount of cluttered cabinets showing official papers stacked up in folders.
And of course, there were plenty of bookshelves, offering a high-brow background for those looking to create the right impression to their colleagues.