Dissolution day has arrived for the Welsh Parliament with just a week to go before the election. The documentation I found on the matter did not specify a precise time, so my default assumption was that it took place at midnight. Since the Senedd only has sixty members it took under an hour to delete the “MS” post-nominals from all of their pages. For good measure I also created a box that could be slapped on the top of each article removing any doubt over the nature of events. I hope that in time the politically-oriented communities of Wikipedians will adopt something similar for all elections of this kind (preferably with a dedicated bot) as I think it is far more efficient than laboriously removing each and every reference to incumbency from each and every page. Also today the UK Parliament would be closing down, though not for an election.
Having been in session since 17th December 2019, Parliament was prorogued this afternoon, to re-open on Tuesday 11th May. As expected, the ceremony was much modified to meet the requirements of social distancing. The Lords Newby (Liberal Democrat) and Judge (Crossbench) were still named in the letters patent – along with Welby and Buckland, of course – but it was only Fowler, Evans and Smith who physically took part. Unlike in the abortive attempt of September 2019 the three commissioners were not huddled together but spaced apart, and it is clear now that the temporary bench between the woolsack and the throne is in fact three smaller stools which, until this occasion, were always pushed together. Black Rod summoned the Commons as before (reciting her command in a robotic fashion that suggested some very determined memorisation), but instead of walking in two columns with government members adjacent to their shadows the MPs had to shuffle awkwardly in single file. Upon reaching the Lords’ bar, Mr Speaker and Black Rod stood at the far ends of the panel behind the crossbench with the Clerk of the House of Commons in the middle some way back, while the Serjeant-at-Arms did not appear to be there at all. The nodding and doffing between Commons and Commission only occurred once each on entry and departure instead of the usual three times. A doorkeeper could be seen in the archway directing MPs to stand on the steps either side as they came in. The Reading Clerk (Jake Vaughan) read the patent as before, but for a while I wondered where the other two clerks were – given that since the start of the pandemic there has only been one chair at the table instead of three. For a moment I feared that Vaughan was going to have to do both parts of the Royal Assent maneuver himself – perhaps darting either side of the table – or that another clerk would be participating virtually. Instead the Clerk of the Parliaments (Simon Burton) and the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery (Antonia Romeo) strode into the chamber from either side behind the commissioners, did their part as usual, then swiftly exited the same way.
When Her Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech had been read aloud and the MPs dismissed, Fowler stood up and stepped ahead of the woolsack while Evans and Smith sidled out to his right – in contrast to the normal procedure in which Evans would have moved first and thus brushed in front of him – then went out of the chamber behind the mace-bearer as normal. As this was to be his last sitting day as Lord Speaker I had wondered if there would be any cheering – let alone applause or other gesture of celebration – from the peers spectating, but instead the procession was as solemn as any. Upon returning to their own chamber MPs again had to arrange themselves in a distanced fashion while Sir Lindsay recited the list of acts granted assent. Handshaking was against regulations, so members merely bumped elbows or exchanged nods with the speaker either side of the perspex screen as they departed past his chair.
The timetable published some weeks back for the election of a new lord speaker would have had the winner (The Lord McFall of Alcluith, Senior Deputy Speaker since 2016) assuming office this Saturday and presiding for the first time next Tuesday, but the government’s decision to seek prorogation this week instead of next means that the new speaker’s debut will in fact be at the state opening. Exactly what role he will play there is still uncertain, for little more information has been revealed about the changes that ceremony will undergo to remain COVID-compliant.
What I often notice about royal commissions in Parliament is that the cameras and microphones are left running even when nothing is formally happening. In the upper chamber I heard Lady Smith converse with the backbenchers. I couldn’t make out the whole conversation
Smith: If you make me laugh you’ll be in trouble.
Unknown: The ~~~~* know how you feel.
Smith: Every sympathy.
Unknown: It’s nice to have some other people dressed.
Smith: You haven’t got to wear a hat though, have you?
Unknown: Well they do – he has a mitre!
Smith: I think it would fit better now I’ve got so much hair.
Unknown: The first law of politics is Don’t Wear A Funny Hat.
Smith: Don’t wear a subtle one either.
Unknown: As long as you don’t break into song.
Smith: My mates from school are all watching.
Unknown: Is the Lord Speaker allowed to keep his?
Smith: I’d hate to see what they’re saying on WhatsApp at the moment.
The rest of the conversation was insufficiently intelligible to transcribe, but I think one of the unknowns joked about Smith having her hair cut around the hat and somehow being electrocuted.
*It sounded like “conventioners” or “adventurers” but in context it clearly referred to the bishops, and indeed Archbishop Welby was probably one of those replying.