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Commons showdown looming to test support for Gaza ceasefire

15 Nov 2023 5 minute read
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Photo Jacob King/PA Wire

Sir Keir Starmer is battling to avoid a damaging split in the Labour Party as rebel MPs appear set to defy him to back calls for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The SNP is pushing an amendment to the King’s Speech backing a ceasefire, with Labour frontbenchers facing the sack if they back it.

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn has said Parliament must “show moral leadership” and vote in favour of backing an immediate cessation of hostilities.

Labour MPs have been ordered to abstain on the SNP move and have instead been told to back Sir Keir’s position calling for longer “humanitarian pauses” rather than a ceasefire.

Labour frontbenchers who rebel to back a rival amendment would normally face the sack for breaking the party whip.


A party spokesman said: “This is a whipped vote and every MP knows what the consequence of that means.”

Both Labour’s amendment and the SNP’s one have been selected for a vote on Wednesday evening by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

Shadow cabinet minister Pat McFadden said there was “no need” for any Labour MP to support the SNP’s amendment.

He told LBC that his party’s position had been set out “comprehensively” in its own King’s Speech amendment.

“It deals with the three critical aspects of this, which are: how this began on October 7 with the greatest slaughter of Jews since the end of the Second World War; it deals with the current humanitarian situation unfolding in Gaza, calling for pauses in the fighting for more aid for more electricity, water, medicine to get into help the people there; and, critically, it also deals with the future.

“And in setting it out in a comprehensive way, just as Keir Starmer did in his Chatham House speech a couple of weeks ago, we have given a position that Labour MPs can vote for.”

He would not confirm whether Labour frontbenchers would be fired if they backed the SNP’s amendment calling for a ceasefire, saying that was a matter for the chief whip.

Mr McFadden said: “There’s no need for any Labour MP or frontbencher to be voting for the position tabled by another political party when we’ve tabled our own position.”

But on Sky News he added: “Like every frontbencher, I serve at the pleasure of the leader.

“Who is on the frontbench is a matter for him and the chief whip.”

Internal splits

The party position on the Middle East conflict has led to internal splits, with the leadership backing the UK Government’s position of pushing for humanitarian pauses in the fighting to allow aid to reach Palestinians trapped in the bombarded territory but stopping short of calling for a total cessation of hostilities.

However, several shadow ministers have openly called for a ceasefire and tens of councillors have resigned from Labour over its refusal to back a permanent halt to the violence.

In a letter to MPs, the SNP’s Mr Flynn wrote: “By refusing to join the United Nations in pressing for an immediate ceasefire, Westminster would be disregarding international law, condoning collective punishment and giving the green light to the continued bombardment of Gaza, which has seen thousands of innocent children and civilians killed.

“People understand that the conflict in the Middle East is full of complexity. But amidst all that complexity, they also recognise a very human truth. People know that what we are all watching in Gaza is wrong and they want their MPs to do the right thing, show moral leadership and press for an immediate ceasefire.”

By tradition, those occupying frontbench positions are bound by a collective responsibility that they support the party’s position but, so far, Sir Keir has allowed some to deviate by expressing support for a ceasefire in Gaza.

But the Labour spokesman said that “space” for debate did not extend to a vote in Parliament because “that has a significance to it that everybody understands”.

The Commons showdown comes as Israeli forces entered Gaza’s Shifa hospital.

The Israeli army had surrounded the facility as part of its ground offensive against Hamas, claiming the militant group conceals military operations in the complex.

But with hundreds of patients and medical personnel inside, the move has risks of civilian casualties.

Hamas raids on October 7 killed 1,200 people in Israel and saw more than 200 taken hostage.

Retaliatory strikes, including a ground offensive into northern Gaza, by Tel Aviv’s forces have killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell is in Cairo on Wednesday to hold talks with Egyptian counterparts and other partners on how to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

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