Boris Johnson's humiliation contains a lesson for Labour

Ed Miliband's strident turn at the despatch box suggests the opposition could do more to seize the upper hand.

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After a day of high drama, the Internal Market Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons last night, as expected, by a majority of 77. Two Conservative MPs (Roger Gale and Andrew Percy) voted against the bill, while another 30 abstained: a mixture of deliberate statement-making (Sajid Javid), fortuitous absence (Theresa May, who is on a planned trip to South Korea), and other, non-political reasons for missing the vote.

The Bill now proceeds to committee stage, and, beyond some speculation today about whether the rebels will have the whip withdrawn and potentially some more reaction internationally, the focus will return again to the crisis in coronavirus testing in England (see below).

But rumbling on in the background will be speculation over whether the rebels can gain enough momentum to defeat the government next Tuesday, when the Commons votes on an amendment by the Conservative MP Bob Neill. The amendment would require that for the government to actually use the powers outlined in the bill, it would need to pass a vote in the Commons. It could go either way: at least 20 of those who abstained last night were doing so as an explicit rebellion, while a further dozen of their colleagues who voted for the bill last night have indicated their willingness to rebel in favour of the Neill amendment next week. But, just as they could gain momentum, they could also lose it over the coming days; and, if the government sees a rebellion as likely, it could well prevent it by adopting a version of the Neill amendment itself. There were signs of a conciliatory position last night, as Boris Johnson emphasised that these are powers he hopes never to use, while Michael Gove told the Commons that Neill was “on to something”.

The headline numbers maybe make last night’s vote seem like a non-event. But for all that Boris Johnson didn’t suffer a defeat, he was damaged in a different way. Ed Miliband, for one night and one night only, returned to face the Prime Minister at the despatch box, and delivered a speech that simply (and I’m trying to be as objective here as possible) humiliated the PM.

The former Labour leader, now shadow business and energy secretary, delivered a passionate, high-octane speech that has been roundly praised in today’s papers (even the Telegraph calls Miliband a “muscleman”), widely shared online, and commended by Gove, who conceded that it was a “great speech” in his concluding remarks yesterday evening.

Should Keir Starmer be worried? No. But he can welcome an unexpected lesson from his last-minute replacement. Miliband’s speech was not, fundamentally, much different from the one Starmer would have delivered. The multiple precise objections to some of the government’s arguments, the serious concern for the rule of law and for the UK’s international standing, the highlighting of inconsistencies and arguments that don’t add up – all this would have been there if it had been the Labour leader himself at the despatch box. What made it different was the tone, the passion, and Miliband’s willingness to cut to some of the more profound, personal criticisms of Boris Johnson’s fitness for the job of prime minister.

It is notable that one of the most widely shared moments from Miliband’s speech was the point at which the former Labour leader ad-libbed. After stating that the legislation doesn’t contain the measures to prevent an EU blockade of goods between GB and NI, Miliband spontaneously invited the Prime Minister to interject and correct him if he was wrong. “I’ll happily give way,” he jeered, as Johnson refused to budge. “I’m sure he knows it,” Miliband went on. “I’m sure he knows the detail. He’s a details man.”

Those lines, which weren’t part of the planned speech, palpably dripped with disdain for the Prime Minister, as did some of the other searing criticisms of Johnson as a politician and his honesty, competence, and familiarity with the detail. A captive audience, Johnson let his discomfort show on his face, then took out his phone, refusing to look up. He left the chamber as soon as he could.

Starmer touches on these criticisms of Johnson in his PMQs appearances, but with less venom, and always in an seemingly innocent quest for answers, an earnest desire to get things working a bit better. If every appearance by a Labour politician at the despatch box took the tone of Miliband's speech, it would become wearying, shrill, and would be called unconstructive. But Ed Miliband’s unlikely star appearance yesterday shows that Labour can raise the stakes when the occasion demands it, and that the party has more weapons in its arsenal than its leader alone.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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