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Boris Johnson took his first step towards breaking a treaty but the lords can still stop him

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Ed Miliband briefly became the leader of the opposition he never was against David Cameron. Having held this position for five years, he knows something about how to deliver a parliamentary speech, and he must be liberating to do so without the burden of leadership urging caution in every sentence.

Boris Johnson tried to look as if he despised Sixth Form debate nonsense, but only managed to sound sheepish as Miliband scoffed at his ministers’ ever-changing attempts to explain why he wanted to repudiate a treaty that ‘he had just signed.

Miliband, the shadow business secretary, was replacing Keir Starmer, who was isolating himself at his home because a family member is awaiting a coronavirus test. But the speech by the former Labor leaders was an entertaining side spectacle, not the main event. The serious points were all raised within the Conservative Party, rather than on the other side of the House of Commons.

Johnson was moderate as he tried to persuade the skeptics on his side that the clauses of the bill were just an insurance policy he did not intend to use; it was just that a responsible government had to plan for the worst, he told them.

What is striking is that at no point did he admit that the proposed legislation would violate international law, the blunt admission with which Brandon Lewis, the Secretary for Northern Ireland, triggered the chain of explosions from last week. The Prime Minister gently stated that, of course, it is true that passing this bill does not constitute the exercise of those powers, and reassured MPs that in the unlikely event that he ever felt that he had to tear up a treaty, there would be another vote in parliament before that happened.

Some possible rebels seemed appeased. Steve Brine, a former cabinet minister who had Johnson impeached the Tory whip last year, asked for assurances the government was still trying to strike a trade deal with the EU. The Prime Minister was happy to be of service.

But Sir Robert Neill, the Tory backbench MP who is leading the revolt, has made it clear he has none. He made the same argument as a chain of Tory rebels: whether the EU had indeed threatened to try to charge tariffs on goods passing between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, like Johnson said the UK’s first recourse should be to use the arbitration process provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.

However, the number of conservative rebels was insufficient to threaten the progress of the bill through the Commons. Several MPs who abstained could vote against the government on a series of amendments next week, but it doesn’t appear that there are enough to overthrow the majority of the 78 governments, especially since he is supported on this issue by the democrat. Unionist Partys eight MPs.

The crux of this bill will come in the House of Lords, where the Tories lack a majority and even Tory Brexiteer peers like Lord Howard and Lord Lamont believe that repudiation of treaties is a terrible idea. If the Lords voted to obstruct the Commons, it would be another historic clash. Anyone who thought the constitutional Brexit crisis ended with the December election may need to think again.

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