After an unusually long recess today was the day that Parliament finally resumed, but everything was far from back to normal.
Social distancing measures require MPs and peers to be spaced 2 metres apart, which significantly diminished the capacity of the main chambers. Plenaries can no longer be physically attended by more than a few dozen members at a time. Every other bench has been ruled out of bounds. In the Lords this is indicated by a red cloth placed over the length, while in the Commons there are slabs of cardboard bordered by hazard tape blocking access. The small white cards on the frames of the green benches, normally used by honourable members to reserve a place in advance, were replaced by either red cards with a no entry sign or green cards with a tick to indicate which spots could or could not be used. The red benches have no corresponding external frames, so instead the tick signs were attached to small pillars propped up behind. Two of the three cross benches had disappeared, as had two of the three seats for the upper house’s clerks, and both chambers had lines of tape on the floor marking standing distances.
Last month, without much fanfare, two new junior ministers were appointed to the government with a promise that they would be made life peers. One was Sir Gerry Grimstone, former chairman of Barclays Bank; the other was Stephen Greenhalgh, former Deputy Mayor of London. Today they finally had their introduction ceremonies, which fell short of what they had probably been led to expect. Black Rod still wore semi-state dress, but Garter did not wear his tabard, nor did the newcomers themselves wear the familiar robe. The supporters – existing members of the house who accompany the new one – were omitted entirely. The reading clerk began with the letters patent already in his hand rather than the inductee delivering it to him, then stepped back to give their lordships space to swear the oath and sign in – though Greenhalgh almost forgot the latter step and had to quickly double back. After bowing to the throne from behind the clerk’s table as usual, the procession exited through the content lobby, with the peer only nodding to the acting speaker on the woolsack instead of shaking hands. One cannot tell from the footage, but it can reasonably be reckoned that friends and family of the new members were not given the usual invitation to watch from the gallery, nor to attend any kind of reception afterwards.
Of course, this is still the early stage of transition. Both houses are moving to conduct much of their business virtually, so shortly it may be the case that the empty benches are filled with monitor screens, or even that the chambers are not used at all.