The government has U-turned on its plans for a return to “normal” parliamentary voting: MPs will still have to queue for long periods to vote, but MPs who are shielding for various reasons and the over-70s will be able to vote by proxy.
The decision is a sensible one in that it removes most, but not all, of the democratic problems presented by the new system: it no longer disenfranchises MPs who for whatever medical reason cannot be present in the House to vote. It still presents obstacles for MPs who cannot easily reach London in the age of social distancing and then return to their constituencies, but the most egregious element has been removed.
But it comes at a cost: it aggravates the other problem with the new system, which is that it greatly complicates the life of the Conservative whips, and empowers Tory backbenchers and opposition whips.
Why? Because the usual convention when an MP cannot be present is for the government or opposition to take one of theirs out in order that no one is disadvantaged. This arrangement benefits both sides but the governing party tends to do better out of it because, as I explained yesterday, the government side has ministers who need to be away more when the House is sitting. They have functions they cannot exercise while spending large chunks of the day queuing up to vote.
At a stroke, the government’s sensible changes will reduce the scale of the cross-party problem with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new voting system – in that MPs who have to shield will be re-enfranchised – while the distinct problem it creates for the governing party, which is that it takes up an inordinate amount of time that government ministers do not have, has not gone away. The greater power of Tory backbenchers to force government U-turns, provided they are well-organised, has only been increased.