Menu
Sun, 21 July 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
By Ben Guerin
Press releases

"Embarrassing” Westminster In-Fighting Highlights Real Safety Risks For MPs

(Alamy)

9 min read

Britain’s only Palestinian MP has spoken of her “embarrassment" at the way in which Westminster turned in on itself this week when debate on a ceasefire in Gaza descended into “farce”. 

"There I am, with my family trapped in that church in Gaza, desperately seeking some sort of resolution – and all I wanted to say to them was parliament did you proud," Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who has lost family since fighting began in Gaza in October, told PoliticsHome

"But we just didn’t. It was a complete failure of a day."   

On Wednesday, party-on-party chaos in the House of Commons rapidly eclipsed the interests of people directly impacted by the war between Israel and Hamas, whose welfare MPs were ostensibly gathered to debate with a Scottish National Party (SNP) opposition day motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.  

So far the UK government has only gone as far as demanding a "humanitarian truce" to the conflict, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians in Palestinian-held territories since 7 October, when Hamas terrorists killed more than 1,200 Israelis. 134 Israeli hostages are also yet to be released by Hamas, lending grave sensitivity to international handling of the issue. 

Accusations of cynical manoeuvring by parties keen to prioritise their own political interests had already bubbled to the surface, even before Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle unleashed further havoc by breaking with parliamentary protocol to select both Labour and the government’s amendments to the SNP’s motion. He also allowed the Labour amendment to be voted on before the SNP motion, meaning the latter was effectively cancelled out in the end.

The SNP’s motion sought to escalate the UK’s position to calling for "an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and Israel" ahead of Israel's planned assault on Rafah – where over one million Palestinians are seeking refuge from the war. Aid agencies are also warning of the risk of famine in northern Gaza, where they are struggling to gain access to civilians. Labour put forward its own amendment asking for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire" that is "observed by all sides," in an attempt to prevent Labour MPs in favour of a ceasefire voting with the SNP. An additional Government amendment reiterated the UK’s formal position of seeking an "immediate humanitarian pause" with "moves towards a permanent sustainable ceasefire".

Moran questioned why – with the interests of Palestinians in mind –  there had not been greater cross party diplomacy in the crafting of the SNP's ceasefire motion to ensure the maximum number of MPs could support it. Labour has argued its own wording of the ceasefire proposal was more robust than the SNPs, necessitating an amendment. 

Layla Moran
Liberal Democrat Layla Moran is parliament's only British Palestinian MP. (Alamy)

Moran said she had found it upsetting that the Scottish nationalists had not worked with her and her party on the issue. The Lib Dems had also submitted an amendment to the Speaker ahead of Wednesday's debate, but it was not selected.

"We made it really clear we wanted ‘two states’ included in their motion, but they didn’t include it,” Moran said. 

“That’s what says to me that the SNP were politicking. I was really upset that the SNP had chosen to ignore me that way. My history is part of that: the history of the Palestinians is people talking about the Palestinians and not talking to them.”

It is understood that efforts were made by the SNP to work with other parties on the motion but that efforts were not successful. 

Labour MP Charlotte Nichols, who had planned to break the party whip and vote for both Labour's amendment and the SNP's original ceasefire motion before chaos derailed the latter, agreed that the day had demonstrated "the worst of the kind of political machinations and politicking". 

"That the conversation now isn't about the situation in Gaza, and instead it's about how many people have signed a motion of no confidence in the Speaker, or the SNPs grievances about the way things panned out, means the actual important issue at the centre of this has been completely lost," she said. "As parliament, we've made it all about us." More than 60 Conservative and SNP MPs have signed an Early Day Motion of no confidence in the Speaker in protest to his decision to select multiple amendments. 

Nichols insisted that the debate should have been a “gesture of international solidarity”, pressuring parliament to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. “Instead, it's all about [SNP Westminster leader] Stephen Flynn's hurt feelings. Who cares? That's not what's important here.”

Nichols also believed if more cross-party groundwork had been done to devise a collective position on a ceasefire ahead of the debate, it may not have unravelled as it did. 

“I don't understand the SNP’s unwillingness to engage with other parties about getting a form of wording that other opposition MPs could feel confident about getting behind and supporting,” she continued. “They could have won the vote outright.” 

But the fallout from the Speaker’s controversial decision to upend procedure has also cast a more sombre light on the way in which MPs ultimately made Wednesday’s ceasefire debate about themselves. Hoyle, who is a Labour MP but is bound to neutrality as Speaker, said that he broke protocol and selected both Labour and Government amendments to the SNP’s motion to allow MPs “widest possible range of options” in the vote. It is believed that because party leadership had indicated it could not support the SNP motion, selecting only the Government amendment for a “humanitarian pause” would have denied Labour MPs the opportunity to vote for a ceasefire compromising their safety in a climate where politicians already receive regular threats, and two MPs have been murdered within the last ten years. Hoyle has since apologised and offered the SNP an emergency debate on a ceasefire next week, although many still accuse him of demonstrating bias in Labour’s favour.

Lindsay Hoyle
House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle told parliament his decision to break convention had been out of concern for MPs' safety. (Alamy)

Nichols said she believed safety would have been the Speaker’s prime concern "on such an emotive issue", as she joined a number of MPs, including government ministers, who have defended Hoyle. "He is completely sincere about that,” she said. 

Su Moore, chief executive of the Jo Cox Foundation – founded after the murder of MP Jo Cox in 2016 by a far-right terrorist – felt the events in parliament this week “typified” growing concern over MPs’ safety.

“It's definitely a problem,” she told PoliticsHome. “It’s so off-putting for people getting involved in politics, and we're seeing people stepping back from politics because of the issue.”

Lord John Mann, a former Labour MP and the government's independent adviser on antisemitism, told PoliticsHome he was aware of people who had refused to stand as MPs as a result of threats. He believed it was likely the "level of risk is higher now than it’s been since the height of Brexit when we saw Jo Cox murdered".

While Government has sought to tighten the law around protest, and been critical of peaceful pro-ceasefire demonstrations that gathered outside Parliament during Wednesday’s debate, Mann insisted the real issue was with targeted intimidation against individual MPs. 

"If people want to protest about something, Parliament is an obvious place – that’s quite different to people’s family’s being threatened in their own home," he explained. 

"I’ve had a number of people convicted and go to prison for targeting me and my family, that's a wholly different issue and that’s becoming far more regular.

"That is not about noisy protestors, that’s about much more serious risks. We’ve had two MPs murdered and another one stabbed at a surgery, people’s houses being attacked physically. Those who say that is not a risk simply don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Mann also believed the safety of MPs would have been the driving motivation on Wednesday for Hoyle, who feels "haunted" by the fact that Tory MP David Amess was murdered by an Islamist extremist in 2021 “under his watch as the Speaker”.

"It’s always been my view that the position of Speaker has too much power in determining debates, but on safety, there is no question Lindsay Hoyle is the only person with serious authority who has taken MPs security seriously – the only person,” he continued.  

“It would be highly inaccurate for anyone not to understand that that issue of safety and security is something that he puts first and foremost, because that’s fact.”

SNP foreign affairs spokesperson Brendan O'Hara said parliament had only been able to vote for a ceasefire because the SNP had used its "scarcely-allocated parliamentary time to table a vote on multiple occasions" - and that the SNP sought to recentre discussions about Wednesday's vote on Gaza. 

"As a result of public and SNP pressure, the UK Parliament has now finally voted for an immediate ceasefire and Sir Keir Starmer, who until this week openly opposed calling for one, has been forced into a U-turn and changed his position.

"Wherever possible, the SNP has sought to build consensus but the political reality means it is not always possible to meet the conflicting demands of different political parties – not least given the Tories and Labour Party both opposed an immediate ceasefire for the past five months.

"The shameful events of the last week has shown Westminster at its worst but we have also made important progress that shouldn't be forgotten. What matters now is that everyone focuses on what really matters - helping the people of Gaza, freeing the hostages, and ensuring the UK government does everything it can to help secure a ceasefire and lasting peace.

"The SNP will do everything we can to make that happen, and we are already in discussions about tabling a further motion on the next steps. If other parties want to table their own motions in parliament we would be happy to work together and consider support."

PoliticsHome Newsletters

PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Nadine Batchelor-Hunt - Growth, Railways And Energy Focus Of Labour Government's First King's Speech