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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on Wednesday suffered a major rebellion over his stance on the Israel-Hamas war, as 10 frontbenchers quit and 46 other MPs defied him to back a parliamentary motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Starmer had made clear to his shadow ministers that they would be forced to leave the front bench if they voted in the House of Commons for an amendment to the King’s Speech by the Scottish Nationalist Party that supported a ceasefire.
Jess Phillips was one of the most high-profile departures as she resigned from her role as shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding. She was joined by front bench colleagues including shadow minister for crime reduction Naz Shah and shadow solicitor-general Andy Slaughter.
In total, 56 Labour MPs rebelled against the instruction from party whips to abstain on the SNP motion — including eight shadow ministers and two parliamentary private secretaries who quit the front bench.
The Labour leadership had tried to assuage MPs wanting to back a ceasefire by putting forward its own amendment criticising both the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, following the Palestinian militant group’s attack on the Jewish state on October 7.
About 1,200 people were killed by Hamas fighters, and 200 hostages taken to Gaza, according to Israeli officials.
Starmer had already lost one shadow minister over the Israel-Hamas conflict when Imran Hussein was forced to resign as shadow employment minister last week.
Before Wednesday’s vote about 20 Labour frontbenchers — either junior shadow ministers or whips — had defied Starmer and called for a ceasefire in various forums.
Charities have described the situation in Gaza as a humanitarian catastrophe, and Palestinian officials say the Israeli military’s bombardment of the coastal enclave since October 7 has killed more than 11,000 people.
Starmer backs a “humanitarian pause” to deliver more aid, in line with the US and UK governments, saying a full ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup and commit more attacks.
Phillips said it was with a “heavy heart” that she had quit but added she felt compelled to vote “with my constituents, my head and my heart”.
Following the revolt, Starmer said in a statement he regretted that party colleagues had not backed his position, but added he had “wanted to be clear about where I stood, and where I will stand”.
He added: “Alongside leaders around the world, I have called throughout for adherence to international law, for humanitarian pauses to allow access for aid, food, water, utilities and medicine, and have expressed our concerns at the scale of civilian casualties.”
Ahead of the vote Shah had warned she wanted to do “what is right”, regardless of the potential impact on her own position. “We cannot expect peace unless we enable justice to be delivered,” she said.
Referencing the Biden administration’s reluctance to pressure Israel to rein in its military in Gaza, she served notice she would defy the Labour whip, saying: “It is a matter of conscience to step away from our closest ally in the interest of peace.”
Afzal Khan said before the vote he would back the SNP’s motion and stepped down as shadow exports minister.
“If we had a ceasefire yesterday, 144 Gazan children would be alive today. Israel has already crossed every red line possible and broken international humanitarian laws,” he added.
While some of the front-bench Labour rebels publicly resigned and posted statements on social media, others made no initial comment.
A Labour official insisted the latter group had been held to have resigned, rather than been sacked.
Ahead of the vote, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy told MPs that a
ceasefire remained a distant prospect while Hamas refused to lay down its arms and release all hostages.
“Peace is never simple, never won easily. Everyone in this House wants
the fighting to end, the central debate is what are the steps to bring
this about . . . In the end this will surely end with a political
process,” Lammy said.
Speaking after the vote, Stephen Flynn, SNP leader at Westminster, said there was “growing international momentum for an immediate ceasefire but Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer have opted out of it”.