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Parliament finds itself in a dangerous position after the Speaker’s intervention

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Two main issues emerge from the chaos surrounding Wednesday night’s House of Commons debate on the war in Gaza. The first is that a partisan row over parliamentary procedure dressed up as high principle actually had far more to do with crude electioneering than events in the Middle East. The second is the extent to which parliamentary process is being undermined by threats of violence against MPs. The first matters only to those who work in Westminster; the second is crucial for a functioning democracy and may yet bring down the Commons Speaker.

The procedural issue at stake here is the principle of “opposition days”, designated times set aside for opposition parties to choose the parliamentary business of the day. On Wednesday, the Scottish National party used its day to table two motions designed to show up Labour, which is staging a revival north of the border.

The first motion called for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas, an issue on which the SNP knows that Labour leader Keir Starmer faces unrest in his own ranks and possible further front bench resignations. The second was aimed at Labour’s abandonment of its £28bn green investment plan.

It’s hard not to be cynical about the SNP’s motives (and the Tory efforts to capitalise on Labour’s discomfort), but its MPs were justifiably angry when the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, changed the rules in a way that would let Labour off the hook. Suddenly Labour MPs threatening to defy their leader would have their own ceasefire motion to support. Starmer had sprung the SNP trap.

The upshot was that the first ceasefire motion to pass the Commons was a Labour one, which was definitely not the plan. The Labour version was more nuanced, less hardline and did not talk of Israel’s “collective punishment” of Gaza. Even so this is good news for supporters of the Palestinian cause who can now add the UK to those parliaments demanding an immediate ceasefire. There is symbolic value in this.

The SNP remains furious while many Tory MPs have acquired a new found concern for the rights of minor parties. But the central issue here is not why the supposedly neutral Speaker acted as he did. He has already apologised. Hoyle’s own, credible, explanation for his actions is that he was worried about the safety of MPs and changed the rules to assist those who have been threatened.

That Starmer will have applied pressure to the Speaker is indubitable, but it is also well known that Labour MPs, including Muslim members, are facing threats at home if they continue to stick with the official party line on Gaza.

Nor are such threats restricted to Labour. Two MPs have been murdered since 2016 and the Conservative MP Mike Freer recently announced he was standing down in part because of intimidation. MPs are being offered stab vests and extra security. Homes and constituency offices are being targeted by demonstrations that sometimes go beyond the boundaries of legitimate protest.

The issue concerning MPs today is that if they are to take the Speaker at his word, he allowed the threat of violence to alter parliamentary process and this might up the likelihood of such intimidation becoming more common if protesters see such tactics can influence outcomes in parliament.

However, they might also want to consider the fact that they are not alone in facing such threats. Intimidation during the war in Gaza has been widespread in the UK and is felt especially in the Jewish community, which has faced a huge spike in antisemitic incidents. Muslims too report an increase in abuse.

While the protests against the way Israel is prosecuting the war in Gaza have been mostly peaceful, some demonstrators have carried openly antisemitic placards. Jewish premises have been targeted and graffitied and students complain of intimidation on campus while the wider community accuses the police of reluctance to intervene. Many Tory MPs want the police to take a far tougher line, both on specific threats and on the noxious atmosphere from which they emerge.

Parliament today finds itself in a dangerous place. Forces are marshalling against Hoyle, for a variety of reasons, but if MPs choose to make a stand on this issue they will have a legitimate stick with which to beat him. Geoffrey Cox, former attorney-general, has argued that the Speaker either changed the rules to help Labour or because of intimidation, adding that the second would be an “abject surrender to intolerance and tyranny”. Many MPs will argue that instead of bending to very real threats, parliament should be ensuring that the police and security services are doing more to crack down on them.

Most of the public will respond to this row with indifference. There are few sights more unedifying than MPs sanctimoniously arguing over procedure and dressing it up as principle.

Even so, a number of very brave MPs have spent the past few years battling intimidation over one issue or another. At the time of writing Tories appear to be stepping back from turning on the Speaker. But the big question that arises from this week’s events is whether their safety was enhanced or ultimately reduced by the Speaker’s call. If they conclude that it is the latter, his position may become untenable.

What will be sad for all those concerned about Gaza is that Westminster is talking about itself rather than events in the region. What might have been celebrated as the first parliamentary call for a ceasefire is lost in unedifying partisan chicanery and wrangling from which no party emerges with credit.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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