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Commons sheds more heat than light in unedifying political display

Parliament Big Ben
By Chris White
22 February 2024
Public Affairs
conservative party

It’s easy to forget with all the heat and light in the media coverage of the future of the Speaker that yesterday’s debate in the Commons was supposed to be about the Gaza and the conflict between Israel and Hamas.   

Yet in reality it really wasn’t. Instead of the Commons debating the merits of how to use diplomacy to bring an end to conflict and bring humanitarian relief to those affected, we ended up with a deeply unedifying political row.  

How did we get here? Every year, the opposition parties in the Commons are given 20 days, split according to their size, where they – not the government - can choose what MPs debate. Yesterday, it was the turn of the SNP, who as expected tabled a motion on the situation in Gaza, as they did back in November, a debate that triggered the resignation of several Labour frontbenchers.  

Speak to most MPs as individuals, and they would probably all agree that the UK calling for a form of ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza is the right course of action. However, the partisan nature of the Commons, combined with political parties and the opportunity to use social media to drive wedge issues, meant that the Commons singularly failed to rise to the occasion.  

The rules governing how opposition days work have been in place since 1979 and remain largely unchanged since then. They are designed to give the opposition party whose debate it is a chance to vote on its motion first, followed by a government amendment. That means it is a binary choice – there is no third opportunity in the rules for another party to get involved. 

The SNP tabled a motion that Labour couldn’t vote for, with Keir Starmer having spent days crafting a careful compromise that his backbenchers could just about accept. He realised that if the government put its own amendment forward, then Labour’s carefully crafted third option wouldn’t be selected , meaning Labour’s MPs would be forced to choose between abstaining or voting for the SNP motion. 

At this point all sense of reason seems to have departed those involved. The SNP refused to consider amending their motion despite informal approaches from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, because they were determined to drive a wedge between themselves and Labour. Labour could not stomach voting for the SNP motion, as it called for an end to the "collective punishment of the Palestinian people". Labour's shadow foreign secretary David Lammy also argued it did not "lay out a path to a sustainable peace" and "appears to be one-sided".  

It appears that Keir Starmer then spoke in person to the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, pointing out that there should be the broadest possible debate, but also possibly suggesting that Labour MPs would be under threat from extremists if their amendment could not be voted on. We will never know precisely what was said in the private meeting, but whatever was said, the Speaker was persuaded to allow the Labour amendment to be selected. 

This caused a furore in the Commons for two reasons. Firstly, because it broke long standing procedures, confirmed in writing by the Clerk – the most senior official whose job it is to interpret them. He issued a damning public letter which pointed out the risk, as later transpired, that the SNP motion may not be voted on at all. The second reason was that it let Labour off the political hook – the SNP had used the debate to paint Labour into a corner where there was likely to be a huge rebellion of 100 MPs, including some frontbench resignations. 

At the end of the debate, the government refused to move its amendment, the Labour amendment was passed, and the SNP didn’t even get to vote on their own motion on their own opposition day. Cue huge political uproar. As of this evening over 60 MPs from the Conservatives and SNP have now signed a motion saying they have no confidence in the Speaker. For context, Michael Martin resigned as Speaker in 2009 when fewer than 30 MPs signed a similar motion, though the feeling is that the Speaker might just survive. 

Lindsay Hoyle is a good man, whose long tenure first as Deputy Speaker, and then as Speaker has seen him be  a fine servant to the Commons. He no doubt feels that he acted with the best of intentions, trying to ensure that MPs could express their views by innovating Commons procedures to allow this. Yet innovating on the fly has huge risks, and instead of allowing debate, it stymied it. Hoyle has now apologised for his mistake. 

Yet the greatest failure of all is that of MPs collectively to recognise the gravity of the situation. This was not the time for petty political point scoring – it should have been an opportunity to present a united front. Today we are left with the front pages dominated by a political row, rather than how the UK might use its diplomatic power to bring both sides together for a lasting and peaceful solution. That is a sad indictment of our politics.