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By Ben Guerin
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Gaza Ceasefire Vote Has Triggered Unusual Approach To "Outdated" Commons Rules


5 min read

The rules and procedures around opposition days in the House of Commons have opened up the row over an expected Gaza ceasefire vote later today, a parliamentary expert has said.

Alice Lilly, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government said that the Speaker had made a "controversial decision" by permitting both Conservative and Labour amendments to the SNP's opposition day motion to be discussed. 

She told PoliticsHome that usually, the combination of a slightly different set of procedures to Commons business and the current parliamentary maths, leave parties “trying to figure out how they can use this procedure to try and get what they want”, potentially at the expense of others in the Commons.

Labour leader Keir Starmer seems to have swerved the possibility of a rebellion from his own backbenches, thanks to speaker Lindsay Hoyle permitting the party's amendment to the SNP's opposition day motion, as well as that laid by the government. 

Hoyle sparked fury among SNP and Conservative MPs when he announced on Wednesday afternoon that both amendments would be considered. 

He told the House that "this is a highly sensitive subject on which feelings are running high in the House, in the nation, and in the world. 

"I think it's important on this occasion that this House is able to consider the widest possible range of options." 

Given precedent, it had been thought that the government's decsision to lay an  amendment to the SNP’s opposition day motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, could have prevent Labour's own amendment for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” from being discussed. 

Hoyle said that the precedent "reflects an outdated approach". Speaking after the decision, Lilly said that it was "clearly a controversial decision", as the complaints in the Commons chamber showed. 

Lilly believed that the Speaker appeared to be placing huge importance on three major parties getting to debate and test their views on a Gaza ceasefire. "It’s notable that he said that he feels the relevant Standing Order is outdated and wants the Procedure Committee to look into it," she added. 

"But ultimately, Standing Orders can’t be changed unless the government is willing to move a motion to do so and the Commons agrees to it."

Labour was set to order its MPs to abstain on the SNP motion, and instead whip them to back theirs in the hope of avoiding a rebellion by Labour MPs calling for a ceasefire in the Middle East. 

Key differences between the party's motions are Labour's amendment including criticism of Hamas, as well as specifying any ceasefire as "humanitarian" – whereas the SNP's does not. The SNP's motion also references "collective punishment" of the Palestinian people where Labour's does not. 

The government laying their own amendment had threatened the possibility of a debate on the Labour amendment, as is usual convention that the Government amendment to an opposition day motion would be selected over any put forward by other parties.

The government amendment calls for an “immediate humanitarian pause” and moves “towards a permanent sustainable ceasefire”. 

Lilly explained that procedure on opposition days differs from regular parliamentary business, because they try to prioritise opposition business. 

“When you have an opposition day motion and the government tables an amendment to it, the standard procedure is that the original motion – the opposition motion – is actually voted on first, which is the other way around from how things usually work,” she said, speaking ahead of Hoyle's decision this afternoon.

Generally when it comes to Commons votes, amendments are voted on first, with the entire bill – amended or unamended – being the final vote. 

“I think the rationale for that is because opposition parties get so little time, it’s an opportunity to allow the Commons to reach a decision on a pure opposition motion.” If the government has laid an amendment to an opposition motion, it then comes next in the priority order, Lilly added. 

Any amendment to an opposition motion laid by the government would be expected to pass, seeing as it is likely to be able to secure the numbers for a majority in a Commons vote. 

“What it means today is the combination of that slightly different procedure and the way that the pure numbers work mean that this is how it’s unfolded,” Lilly said. 

“This is obviously very difficult, it’s a complicated issue, but it’s also one that has become very politicised. I think what you’ve ended up with is different parties trying to figure out how they can use this procedure to try and get what they want, but also perhaps to put other parties in a difficult position.” 

According to the definition on the parliament website, opposition days are “days allocated in the House of Commons for the discussion of subjects chosen by [...] non-government parties.” 

There are 20 such days allocated in every parliamentary session. 

PoliticsHome reported on Tuesday night that frontbench Labour MPs met with shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and shadow development secretary Lisa Nandy, in a meeting chaired by shadow leader of the house Lucy Powell, on Wednesday to discuss "the situation in Israel and Gaza". 

The issue of Labour failing to call for a ceasefire following the outbreak of the war in Gaza, following Hamas' terror attacks on Israel on 7 October, has had particular importance to certain minority groups in Labour. 

In November, a number of Labour frontbenchers resigned in order to back another SNP motion on the issue, and at the Scottish Labour conference over the weekend, the Scottish Labour party unanimously passed a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. 


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