Just when you thought you’d seen everything…
After weeks of press speculation and even more speculative and confused messages between colleagues, “how, where...what’s zoom?” the day arrived, and it was time to attend the first ‘virtual session’ of the ‘hybrid House of Commons’.
The first day back from Easter recess would usually be a day of great excitement; travel, hustle and bustle; catching up with colleagues; a day of sunny optimism as the days grow longer and sun shines stronger and we embark on the summer session of Parliament.
But these are definitely not normal times. So much the same, and yet so much different.
My day started as it had every day for the last three weeks, stepping into our very messy box room that, overnight a few weeks back, had become parliamentary office, call centre, television and radio studio. Today, it would become a part of our House of Commons. But before the time came to ‘attend’ the sitting, it was time to get to work.
I used to say that MPs had never experienced levels of engagement or volume of correspondence as we did through the Brexit process. However, those few months pale into comparison to the sheer number of emails and phone calls from constituents to my and other MPs offices. On some days my office have received and dealt with over 300 individual emails- each needing a bespoke response; businesses needing guidance on the available support through Government; heart-rendering emails from individuals facing unemployment or tragedy; correspondence from vulnerable, elderly or at risk people looking for help and support or possibly just a chat.
My team, working from home, scattered across Aberdeenshire, and indeed in one case from London, have worked incredible hours and gone above and beyond – but I think it is important that as many people as possible get a response from me, at this and every time - the person they elect to Parliament. So, as has been my normal routine for the last four strange weeks, I spent my morning going through and replying to the people that had gotten in touch over the previous afternoon and overnight.
Breaking for a short lunch in the garden (taking advantage of the incredible and indeed paradoxical sunshine – so warm and bright in contrast to the times in which we live), I received a memo from the Speakers Office which informed MPs how we would be able to take part in proceedings in the House. It seemed that we wouldn’t be able to today unless attending in person, which only those that had chosen to travel to London would be able to do. I had decided to continue to show my continuing support for and adherence to the government guidelines by staying at home.
So I attended the sitting. Which involved watching the proceedings on BBC Parliament whilst continuing to engage with constituents via email. It was an odd experience – being a part of something whilst not being present or involved. Seeing colleagues and opponents debate in the chamber, my workplace, whilst being unable to contribute myself. As it turned out, the first ‘hybrid session’ would be during Welsh Questions on tomorrow. So tomorrow it is! Back to work.
Wednesday. The day. At last, after the disappointment of yesterday, I get to experience a virtual House of Commons.
Or…not, as it turned out, as logged into my emails to discover I hadn’t been selected to speak in PMQs or the Health Statement. Oh well. Just be observing on BBC Parliament again.
A busy day nonetheless…and a historic one. For the first time in its 700 year history, MPs would be able to ask questions of Ministers in Parliament, remotely. Just, for a moment, let that sink in. The Mother of All Parliaments, imbued with the tradition, pomp and ceremony and what some might call ‘stuffiness’ allowing MPs to directly question Minister’s, over Zoom, on big screens in the hallowed chamber of the House. Something I don’t think anyone, ever, expected to see – certainly not given the system was only created in three weeks. Quite remarkable.
0900 I was on the phone to Oil and Gas UK. Grim times in the energy sector. The price collapse created by a worldwide drop in demand due to coronavirus is having a huge effect on businesses in the sector worldwide, but especially here in the North East where the economy is heavily reliant on its success. I wanted to get up to speed with the situation.
By 1000, it was time to call some of the constituents that had requested I speak to them directly. It’s not an over-stating the fact to say this virus has affected every single aspect of how we live our lives. I know how lucky I and my colleagues are that we continue to be able to do our job, and get paid, but speaking, on a dialy basis, to those that aren’t and are really worried about the future is sobering – at times heart wrenching. I’m only hope that my team and I add value and are able to assist in even a small way.
1100, - Conservative HQ making sure I’m up to speed with the latest developments as, by 1130, I’m on a test Skype call with Sky News. A historic day for them too – the first ever ‘virtual PMQs panel’ – so at least I get to take part in the proceedings in some way. It’s very disconcerting hearing a TV anchor asking questions ‘we can see you’ always throws me – as does the frantic last minute checks that there isn’t anything untoward in the background of the shot!
PMQs came and went. If you were listening and not watching, other than the fact it was Dom Rabb and not the Prime Minister, and the obvious lack of noise due to the chamber being nearly empty, you would have struggled to have noticed anything different. An early laugh, for me anyway, came when the Speaker announced that ‘David Mundell is unable to connect’. Knowing David I’m sure he would be frustrated but take it in good heart.
A change of scene in the afternoon, over to the Constituency office in Banchory to print some paperwork for the Parliamentary authorities, an interview with LBC, a few more emails and then back home and out for a 10k run- it’s scary how working from home means you can spend a whole day inside. And although I don’t have the marathon to train for anymore (it should have been this Sunday!) I’m determined to make the most of this weather and at least try to get back to Parliament fitter than when I left. A lot of chocolate eggs still to eat though…
The House wasn’t sitting today so, whilst work continued apace, it gave MPs a chance to reflect on the first couple of days sitting as a ‘hybrid house’. Over the various whatsapp groups, most seemed to think it had worked quite well – although the focus seemed to be more on what was in the background of colleagues zoom shots than the content of what they were saying – PMQs had become a Through the Keyhole Parliamentarian Special with an intense focus on working out which club exactly were those footballs in Ian Blackford’s house were from (Hibs by the way).
It still seemed remarkable to think that in a few short weeks, 700 years of working in a particular fashion had been overturned, rightly, so as to continue parliamentary scrutiny through the outbreak. Although concerns still bvery much resounded whn discussion was had on whether remote voting was such a good idea. Personally, I think it far too open to abuse – it is surely only right that you be in Parliament to cast your vote. Even more important that you are seen to be doing your duty. I’m very determined that we revert to business as normal as soon as the crisis passes.
But those debates are for another day. For me, the focus was back on what it had been for the previous few weeks – helping as many constituents and businesses as possible through what is such a difficult and confusing time.
Friday. Or is it Wednesday? Or Thursday? Who knows anymore! All I know is that I am so lucky to have the most incredible team working for me and for the people of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine through this entire situation. Sam, Issy, Gregor, Robbie, Jenny and Helen. A great, dedicated and tireless group who have gone so far beyond what would be normally expected of any office team. Being an MP brings a huge workload at the best of times, but with the Coronavirus outbreak, a whole new meaning has been brought to the term ‘overwhelming’. But the team have dealt with every concern, question, call for help, difficult policy enquiry, in their stride with a calmness, resolve and, quite often, irreverent sense of humour (the joke is more often than not directed at me). The constituency is lucky to have them.
And today I caught up in our regular zoom call – from Manchester, London, Ballater, Finzean, Stonehaven, Alford and Kinellar, we discussed and compared notes on cases and at what stage we were in terms of supporting every person that had gotten in touch with the office.
Spoke to the energy Minister in the Afternoon regarding UK Government support for the Oil and Gas Industry. Before contacting a local councillor about an increase in dog fowling. And then chatting to a colleague about the post covid world and the West’s relationship with China. I did say this job brings the sublime and ridiculous dangerously close together!
Thursday, it seems, was the evening when people in Aberdeenshire email their MP so the inox was full to bursting and after a couple of phone calls to businesses and the police regarding information on social distancing, it was back down to engaging with constituents and replying to their emails. We’ve had some real successes – and sadly, some disappointments this week. Every MP wants to help every constituent get the right result. Sadly, that is impossible. But that’s the job.
I noticed on Facebook this morning that it had been three years since I was selected as the Conservative Candidate for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. It’s been quite a rollercoaster! Every day I’ve been the MP for this part of the world has been a huge honour – and I’ve seen things, done things, met people, that I could never have imagined. From conferences in South America promoting Democracy, to helping in a Department pass legislation, and, of course serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Theresa May, in Downing Street, during the first six tumultuous months of last year. But, the most important, most rewarding thing, that an MP can do - the reason every MP should do their job, is to represent and seek to help their constituents. Never has that been more true than at this time of such great uncertainty and worry.
MPs are far from the heroes that we applaud every Thursday night. We are not on the front line. We are incredibly lucky to do the job we do. But I hope that the comfort, advice, guidance and support that me and my team, and indeed the teams supporting other MPs around the country are able to bring to our communities, is of help.
Parliament may be changing faster than we ever thought it might. Parliamentary democracy is evolving before our very eyes. But the primary job of an MP, to support and represent their constituents, remains. And it has never been more important.
Article for the Press and Journal w/e 24/04/20.