EastEnders is back, and so are Parliamentary votes on Brexit. Neither is quite the same, of course. On the telly, actors have to kiss each other while separated by a screen. In the House of Commons, so few members are allowed into the chamber that the most heated debates still have the air of an adjournment debate on roadworks on the A14.
But some things never change. Bill Cash was outraged about the behaviour of the European Union. Andrea Jenkyns would quite like a no-deal Brexit. And Boris Johnson was doing his best to sabotage the prime minister’s deal.
The twist on this occasion was that the prime minister whose work he was attacking was Boris Johnson. But this moment was inevitable, when you thought about it. He’d undermined every previous Conservative leader he’d encountered. It was only a matter of time before, with stocks of Tory prime ministers running low, he’d have to denounce himself.
We were through the looking glass. Closing the debate, Michael Gove would accuse SNP leader Ian Blackford of adopting “The Humpty Dumpty principle” where “a word means whatever he wants it to mean”. Given his own leader’s mental gymnastics, this was an unfortunate analogy.
The prime minister did a pretty good job, in the circumstances. By the time he sat down, after speaking for 25 minutes, he had made a convincing case that the Withdrawal Agreement he negotiated last year was a poor deal that left the UK badly exposed in the current trade negotiations. It wouldn’t have been surprising to hear Johnson demand a public inquiry, though it wouldn’t be in the prime minister’s nature to agree to one.
The Withdrawal Agreement had given the EU a weapon, Johnson explained. The bloc was now threatening to stop people moving all animal products from Britain to Northern Ireland.
“No British prime minister, no government, no parliament could ever accept such an imposition,” said the prime minister who had proposed the imposition to the parliament which had signed up to it.
The discontent on the Tory benches was clear and widespread
No wonder Conservative MPs looked confused. Later in the evening, Craig Mackinlay insisted that the Internal Market Bill, the subject of the debate, didn’t break the law. But the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, has said that it does. Was Mackinlay attacking the government, or defending it? On Twitter, Daniel Hannan said the Withdrawal Agreement “places a boot on our windpipe”. Desperate crawling to the prime minister or brutal assault on him? Who knows these days?
Ultimately, the government won the vote, but the discontent on the Tory benches was clear, and widespread.
We had another blast from the past at the start of the debate as Ed Miliband rose to respond to the prime minister. If Johnson had glided over the question of who exactly had negotiated the deal that now put the future of the country under threat, Miliband dwelt on it.
Johnson began to sink on his bench. As Miliband spoke, the prime minister scoffed and rolled his eyes. The intention may have been to show scorn, but the impression was of a schoolboy trying to demonstrate his indifference as the head bawled him out in front of the whole class.
“His flagship achievement, the deal he told us was a triumph, the deal he said was ‘oven ready’, the deal on which he fought and won the general election is now ‘contradictory’ and ‘ambiguous,’” Miliband said. “It’s his deal, it’s his mess, it’s his failure. For the first time in his life, it’s time to take responsibility. Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal in the first place, or he didn’t understand it.” Johnson shut his eyes, shaking his head.
Did Miliband go on slightly too long? Yes. Did his speech have too many false finishes? Probably. It remained brutally effective. Gove, polite as ever, called it “excellent.”
Social distancing restrictions and House of Commons rules mean that Miliband stayed two swords’ lengths away from the prime minister, but by the end Johnson had become dishevelled, his tie askew. Possibly he was trying to remember whether or not he was backing the government in this vote, and whether he was doing it by voting for the bill or against it. His head was back now, his mouth open, his eyes staring at the ceiling, like someone who had had a great fall, and was waiting to see who would put him together again.
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