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14 September 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 5:48am

Ed Miliband returns as Labour leader – for a night

The former Labour leader, standing in for Keir Starmer, attacked Boris Johnson's cavalier approach to law, order and the EU.

By Harry Lambert

More than five years after he was outmaneuvered by David Cameron in his final outing at PMQs, Ed Miliband returned to the despatch box tonight in the guise of an opposition leader, if only for an evening. 

Standing in for Keir Starmer and responding to Boris Johnson’s opening statement on the Internal Markets Bill, Miliband was lit by indignation as he methodically outlined the government’s oscillations and inconsistencies over the Withdrawal Agreement – the Brexit departure deal that Johnson is now threatening to circumvent.

When he is not speaking, Miliband still too often sits on the opposition bench looking either perplexed or lost in faraway thought. He has never learnt the imperturbable pose of the most effective parliamentarians – Disraeli was said to wear a constant half-smile during debate. Starmer wears more of a half-scowl, but sits calmly; Sunak also knows to sit still.

And Miliband, when he does speak, too often talks too fast or with unwarranted emphasis. But so does Johnson, and, unlike the Prime Minister, Miliband came to the chamber tonight with something urgent to say. In contrast Johnson’s speech, as so regularly with him, felt perfunctory. “A year ago,” he warned the House, “this parliament was deadlocked”. That House had had the temerity, Johnson argued, to challenge the last government’s negotiators, regularly weakening their hand (Johnson was, of course, one of the era’s regular rebels).

This House, Johnson averred, should never make that mistake again. His government needed latitude to act – and besides, the bill before the House only gave his government the authority to break the law. That authority that would have to be exercised in a second, later vote, he assured Bob Neill, one of the Tory rebels. Backing the bill tonight would not break the law in a “specific and limited way”, as the minister for Northern Ireland stated last week.

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Miliband accepted none of Johnson’s calm. He started hurriedly, launching into the two questions posed by Johnson’s bill. The questions soon fell by the wayside, to be replaced by the three reasons Labour opposed the bill (it wasn’t right, necessary or beneficial). Neither list gripped the House. Nor particularly did Miliband’s crediting of Cameron – a man he thought very little of during their years opposite one another – as a way of discrediting Johnson. 

But as his speech rumbled on Miliband began to slow down; giving space to a series of sharp, well-briefed attacks. Johnson, he said, having promised to unite the nation, had only succeeded in uniting his five predecessors as Prime Minister (all of whom have spoken out against the bill). The UK, continued Miliband, rightly condemns China for skirting the international rules-based order, but how, he asked – picking up on an issue dear to many Conservatives, including Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, who was in the chamber – will the UK lecture China or anyone else in future? Johnson was sending a clear message to the world: “Don’t worry, I can’t be trusted either.”

How dare he, thundered Miliband, try to blame everyone else. “This is his deal. It is his mess. It is his failure.” And members should be under no illusion, Miliband noted, in a nod to Neill and the rebels, that “the very act of passing the bill is itself a breach of international law”. 

He is unlikely to have swayed them. Neill appears satisfied by Johnson’s assurance that the bill is only an insurance mechanism – the law, Johnson all-but-told Neill, will not be broken, but the threat that it might will aid the UK’s negotiators. Miliband failed to address this apparent bargain, and did not attempt to sway Neill more directly, arguably exposing the fact that Labour don’t expect to defeat the government tonight. They want only to have made a stand. 

As Miliband wrapped up – “There is one rule for the British public and another rule for this Government. Pioneered by Cummings, implemented by Johnson: that is the Johnson rule!” – the Prime Minister, finding himself still in the chamber, finished checking his phone and tuned back in. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, sat serenely to Miliband’s right. She is Labour’s deputy, but did not deputise for Starmer.

Tonight “Red Ed” returned; a politician still flawed, but one more comfortable and more commanding than his younger self, facing a political world nothing like the one he left.

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