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Boris Johnson eviscerated by a ghost of Labour’s past

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It is unusual for a prime minister to open a debate on the second reading of a bill in the House of Commons and Boris Johnson’s last-minute decision to do so for the UK Internal Market Bill raised eyebrows around Westminster. Downing Street denied that Johnson chose to step in for business secretary Alok Sharma after Keir Starmer said he was self-isolating because a family member was showing coronavirus symptoms.

If he hoped to avoid one of the Labour leader’s famously forensic goings over, the prime minister miscalculated badly because he was instead eviscerated by a parliamentary tour de force from Ed Miliband, a figure viewed on the Tory benches as a ghost of Labour past.

Johnson’s opening speech lurched between bombast and emollience, bigging up the threat from the European Union to British sovereignty while he played down his own to break international law. The bill’s breaches of the Brexit withdrawal agreement were “reserve powers” which the British government hoped it would never have to use.

What incompetence. What failure of governance. Boris Johnson can’t blame Theresa May, he can’t blame John Major, he can’t blame judges, he can’t blame civil servants, he can’t sack the Cabinet Secretary again. There’s only one person responsible – him. Me in the Commons today: pic.twitter.com/pGqZFiNdoS

— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) September 14, 2020

“I understand how some people will feel unease over the use of these powers. And I share that sentiment myself and I have absolutely no desire to use these measures. They are an insurance policy and if we reach agreement with our European friends – which I still believe is possible – they will never be invoked,” he said.

Miliband ran through the “top five” excuses the government advanced over the past week for ripping up a deal it signed less than a year ago, pausing over the prime minister’s assertion that the EU was threatening to blockade British food products from entering Northern Ireland.

“The bill does precisely nothing to address the transport of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, it is about exit declarations NI-GB and the narrow definition of state aid relating to Northern Ireland. It’s a completely bogus argument,” he said.

Miliband said Johnson had promised to unite the country and had succeeded in uniting five former prime ministers against his plan. And he skilfully turned the argument into a prosecution of Labour’s central case against the prime minister, that he is incompetent as well as untrustworthy.

“He can’t blame [Theresa May]. He can’t blame John Major. He can’t blame the judges. He can’t blame the civil servants. He can’t sack the cabinet secretary again. There is only one person responsible for this. Him. This is his deal. His mess. His failure. For the first time in his life it’s time to take responsibility. It’s time to fess up. Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal or he didn’t understand it. A competent government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions it could not live with,” he said.

‘Due to Covid-19, I’ve not been able to come home since Christmas’

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