A Labour MP has accused Jacob Rees-Mogg of “gaslighting” both MPs and the country with his responses over arrangements for the virtual parliament in the Commons.
Up to 50 MPs can attend the Commons chamber due to social distancing requirements, while Zoom contributions are currently allowed for questions sessions, urgent questions and ministerial statements.
The Commons leader extended arrangements for extremely vulnerable MPs to contribute to take part in debates until the end of March.
But, on the day that the prime minister was forced to self-isolate alongside a series of Tory MPs, the Commons leader resisted demands to extend the virtual participation of MPs to those living with someone in the vulnerable category.
Rees-Mogg confirmed changes would be made following an appeal from Conservative former minister Tracey Crouch, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in June and unable to contribute to a breast cancer debate last week.
But it still excludes a number of others who would feel safer at home.
Labour MP Dawn Butler said that the frontbencher was “overreaching in his suggestion that he should decide who should debate in this House.
She said: “I think the leader is somewhat overreaching in his suggestion that he should decide who should take part in the debates in this House as a Member of Parliament. The current arrangements are not in the best interests of the House as a whole.
“I love being in the House of Commons and I love debating, but we are in a pandemic at the moment and covid is asymptomatic. This place is full of it, whether we like it or not, and we are putting 600 people at risk every time we are here.”
Labour’s Barry Sheerman described Rees-Mogg as “sub-optimal” and said the Commons Leader should resign.
Conservative former minister Robert Halfon welcomed the extension and said MPs who can attend should do so, but said the proposals risk suggesting the government only cares “about the survival of the fittest”.
He also told the Commons: “I know (Rees-Mogg) to be a kind and thoughtful man, but could I just ask him when he considers these issues in the future that the government, however unwittingly, doesn’t give the impression that sometimes that they care just about the survival of the fittest, and that we’re not kind of just supporting Darwinian ubermensch and MPs in terms of working in parliament?”
Rees-Mogg responded: “The government is not trying to be macho about this, it is just trying to ensure that the government itself is held to account properly, but that the legislative programme is also proceeded with.
“I agree with him entirely that parliament needs to be present and I also agree with him that we are showing an example to the nation as a whole.”
Conservative John Baron, who is shielding with his clinically vulnerable wife, said the government’s decision to disallow relations of those who are shielding to participate virtually has created “a hierarchy of MPs” and called on Rees-Mogg to “think again”.
Answering an urgent question on the matter, Rees-Mogg told the Commons: “The government guidance is that if you are living with somebody who is clinically extremely vulnerable, that does not mean that you should not go to work in a Covid-safe environment.”
Conservative chairman of the Liaison Select Committee Sir Bernard Jenkin said “a significant number” of fellow select committee chairs feel “unable to carry out their constitutional function because they cannot risk exposing themselves or their families to Covid infection”.