STRANGE things you never thought would come to pass. Queueing to enter a supermarket. Being thrilled by the sight of the bin lorry arriving. Making your own surgical mask. These days. But the oddest thing of all? Being glad to see politicians.

Bless them every one. There they sat in the Commons chamber, the carpet marked with black and yellow hazard tape as a guide to social distancing. Benches blocked off with plywood. Parliament looking even more like one giant building site.

The Scottish Parliament, modern and therefore more adaptable, was slightly smarter when it returned on Tuesday after recess. Fifty seats had been removed from the chamber, making the place look even airier.

At Westminster yesterday the first virtual Prime Minister’s Questions, or VPMQs if you must, took place. With the PM convalescing at Chequers, the new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer making his debut, and the leader of the SNP in the Commons beaming in from his constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, it was a dear diary day.

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Sir Keir and Dominic Raab, First Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary, standing in for Boris Johnson, began by jabbing politely at each other like the lawyers they are. The Labour leader asked about the Government’s continuing failure to get anywhere near its own target of 100,000 tests a day. Mr Raab tried to turn the focus on the number of tests that could be done, rather than how many were being carried out. Sir Keir, thinking on his feet, picked up on this and came right back at the First Secretary of State. Just for a second, Mr Raab looked rattled.

This was the cut and thrust of parliamentary democracy as it should be. Sir Keir also managed to secure that all-important sound bite for social media, in this case about the Government being “slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment”.

There were obvious problems, the lack of atmosphere most of all. The place was almost as empty as the average high street. Technical glitches occurred. “David Mundell we’ve been unable to connect,” announced the Speaker in sombre tones. Was the computer switched on, Mr M? Conservative MP Peter Bone was cut off midway through a rant on banks. SNP leader Ian Blackford used the occasion to punt the idea of a universal basic income; perhaps not the most pressing concern of the day.

Sir Keir missed a trick in not asking the Foreign Secretary about the UK’s involvement, or lack of it, in EU schemes to procure ventilators and protective equipment.

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It was a Foreign Office official, after all, who told a Commons committee it had been a “political decision” not to take part, though he later said there had been a misunderstanding. Too messy for Sir Keir to raise, or did it not fit in with his “constructive opposition” approach?

PMQs were a little rough round the edges, then, but it will get better. The crucial thing is that MPs and MSPs are back at work. They have been missed. Recent months have been a stress test for democracy as much as they have been for the operation of the NHS. Cracks have begun to show, and nowhere more so than in holding government to account.

But we have the daily 5pm briefings at Number 10, do we not? No Scottish Six, but here is your Downing Street Five. To think the British press used to envy their American counterparts and the daily White House briefings on camera. So much more accountability and transparency. If only we could have our very own CJ Cregg from the West Wing instead of an anonymous bod who goes by the name of “a Downing Street spokesperson”.

Except it has not worked out like that. The White House pressers are still going strong, and in their own way are providing a vital insight into a presidency. Americans are at once enthralled and appalled by their commander-in-chief.

Back in Downing Street, meanwhile, we continue to slog through the motions of the 5 o’clock briefing. Up pops the Minister of the day followed by the experts. After the now ritual statement and reading of the graphs we switch to the screen for journalists to ask questions that are routinely swerved.

Much of the problem is caused by journalists not being in the room. As any interviewer will tell you, there is a world of difference between talking to someone in person, and speaking to them at one remove.

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In person you can look them in the eye, read their responses, adapt the questioning. An interview conducted via video call is almost as bad as one by phone – worse, possibly, because landlines tend not to have technical hitches.

If it is possible for people to be in the same place in the Commons, at Holyrood, and in the White House briefing room, why can’t a small band of journalists take it in turns to attend the Downing Street press conference in person?

Politicians have a particular and crucial role to play when it comes to holding the executive to account. It is easy to sneer at your average backbencher or committee. What do they do all day? Why do they take so long to produce a report? How much more effective, as we saw during Brexit, to go through the courts if you want something done.

Yet the courts are not plugged into the community in the same way as politicians. MPs and MSPs see and hear what is happening on the ground, and in some instances they are better placed to get answers. Their role as advocates will become even more important as the months go by and life becomes harder for people. Many citizens are going to be coming into contact with the state as never before, and they will need help from those who know their way around.

From the expenses scandal to Brexit, recent decades have not been the best of times for politicians. Now they have a chance to redeem themselves.

There is a sense of drift in the country at the moment. People are stunned. Fearful of what is coming next. While no-one has all the answers it is time to start asking more questions with greater urgency, and politicians have a front line role to play in that. This is a test democracy cannot fail.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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