Sir Lindsay Hoyle has derailed the controversial decision to abandon online voting, which stopped MPs from gathering in a crowded chamber, and forced the prime minister to put forward new rules.
“Based on the latest professional advice from PHE [Public Health England], it is clear to me that the house simply cannot conduct divisions safely via the lobbies,” he wrote in a letter to MPs.
The warning follows the scrapping of the “hybrid” system of only a minority of MPs being at Westminster – with remote voting and participation in debates – even while Covid-19 restrictions remain in place.
It was forced through in a whipped vote by Tory MPs, despite one senior Conservative accusing his own government of effectively “euthanising” vulnerable MPs with medical conditions.
Now Sir Lindsay has decided to recall parliament early on Tuesday, the first day back after the half-term recess, and forced the government to put forward a fresh motion on how votes will take place.
The letter admonishes ministers for pressing ahead with a full return without “cross-party agreement about the way in which the house should conduct its proceedings when the house returns – including on how divisions should take place”.
But it makes clear: “It is for the government to decide what proposal for voting it wishes to put forward.”
In response, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, made clear it remained his intention to return to some form of physical voting from next week.
However, it was not clear how that will be achieved, while ministers continue to explore how MPs who are in lockdown, or shielding, can still contribute to proceedings.
The government insists it needs MPs at Westminster to remove the logjam on important legislation, such as the immigration bill.
Commons staff can continue to work remotely, but the proposed new rules mean MPs will have to travel to Westminster if they wish to take part in debates or votes – which SNP MPs have said they will not do.
It is also feared that a traditional vote with 650 MPs taking part will take an hour to complete, with the queue for the lobbies stretching as long as 1.2km.
If six or seven divisions were called, MPs could spend their whole working day voting, the Prospect union warned.
Mr Rees-Mogg is believed to have wanted to install supermarket-style screens behind Mr Johnson to bypass social-distancing rules in the chamber.
It fuelled a widespread belief that the real motivation for fast-tracking a full return of the Commons is to create a wall of noise – as the prime minister struggles in his weekly jousts with Sir Keir Starmer.
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