Senior Conservatives want all MPs to return to Westminster for PM’s sake

Boris Johnson

Senior Conservatives have called for all MPs to be allowed to return to the House of Commons as they become concerned Boris Johnson is struggling in the deserted chamber in his encounters with new Labour leader Keir Starmer.

The opposition party leader has been praised for his forensic performances in his first four weekly exchanges at prime minister’s questions. The former director of public prosecutions has focused on scrutinising the detail of the government’s response to coronavirus. Referring to Mr Johnson, a parliamentary sketch writer in the usually Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph said Sir Keir had used this week’s PMQs to “take him apart like a Duplo train set”.

The House of Commons is currently sitting in a hybrid arrangement because of coronavirus, with up to 50 MPs present in the chamber — the maximum allowed to maintain a two-metre separation — and 120 dialling in through Zoom. However, on most days barely a dozen MPs have turned up in person.

These arrangements will last at least until the beginning of June.

One Downing Street official said Mr Johnson had been “rattled” by his encounter with the Labour leader on Wednesday and that the prime minister and his allies were keen to get Tory MPs back into the Commons chamber as soon as possible to cheer him on.

I’m not going to put my family or my community at risk just because Jacob Rees-Mogg has an aversion to modernity

“A lively environment probably does suit Boris more than Keir,” admitted a senior Tory MP. One Cabinet minister acknowledged Sir Keir was “very good” at PMQs and far more effective than his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. “He is forensic and deadly. I think the PM is worried.”

“Starmer has the political wind behind him. He is a highly intelligent, detail-oriented person who was one of the best human rights advocates and prosecutors in the country,” another senior Tory MP said.

“Boris is in a political difficulty that isn’t going away for a while. He’s not a details person, who is struggling to articulate what the point of his government is because no one knows beyond Brexit. Put those two together and he’s going to struggle for a while.”

But another senior Number 10 insider denied Mr Johnson was perturbed by his most recent Commons encounter with the Labour leader. “Keir Starmer is the one who was rattled,” the person said.

One Downing Street official said the government was eager for parliament to return in full to facilitate the passage of legislation. “We have a lot of big bills that we really need to get going on,” the individual said, pointing to that fact that chancellor Rishi Sunak had accidentally voted against the government. “You can see the current system isn’t ideal.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, on Wednesday called on all 650 MPs to return to Westminster to “set an example” to the rest of the country, to the consternation of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle.

Sir Lindsay said he would suspend parliament if physical distancing rules were breached.

Mr Rees-Mogg told the Commons the hybrid arrangements would continue until May 20, when parliament is due to go into recess. When the Commons returns on June 2, it is unclear whether more MPs will be allowed to return.

A final decision is likely to be made jointly by the government and Commons authorities.

The government’s eagerness to return to Westminster was criticised by opposition MPs. Jess Philips, a shadow Labour minister, said: “I cannot see how parliament can return to normal, safely and democratically fairly, when some will clearly be excluded. How on earth will it work, safely?”

Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat MP, criticised Mr Rees-Mogg for calling for all MPs to return. “I’m not going to put my family or my community at risk just because Jacob Rees-Mogg has an aversion to modernity.

“He’s like a Victorian mill owner having a bit of a spat because his gentleman’s club has run out of his favourite claret,” he added. “That is no way to run a modern parliament.”