As many as 70 Labour MPs, including 18 frontbenchers, have now demanded a ceasefire in Gaza. Yesterday (5 November) the leader of Burnley council and ten other councillors resigned from the party in protest at Keir Starmer’s refusal to back this stance.
Frontbench resignations are not thought to be imminent, however, despite unrest among some members of the shadow cabinet. Insiders credit the “power team” of Lisa Nandy, the shadow international development secretary, and David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, with helping to shore up Starmer’s position among MPs behind the scenes.
Starmer’s Chatham House speech on 31 October, in which he called for more aid into Gaza and said leaders for too long had placed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the “too difficult box”, is said to have taken some of the heat out of the debate. Nandy, who has previously been chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, is said to have contributed while leading calls for the government to push Israel further on aid.
Lammy, who has strong links to the US Democrats, visited Jordan, Qatar and Egypt to speak to leading figures last week, and toughened Labour’s stance when he used a piece in the Observer to challenge Israel to take further steps to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, is also said to have been key in convincing Labour MPs to hold the line.
So what happens next? Labour rebels are said to be discussing how best to stage a parliamentary vote to make their voices heard. Tomorrow’s King’s Speech, which will set out Rishi Sunak’s legislative agenda, will dominate this week’s parliamentary business. Those who wish to put pressure on the government and Labour could try to amend the speech and force a vote.
If this tactic fails to gain support, backbenchers could ask Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the Commons, for an emergency debate once the King’s Speech has been debated, though there is no guarantee this would be granted without frontbench support from the major parties.
The SNP, whose leader Humza Yousaf has publicly called for a ceasefire, may wish to use its allotted opposition day next week to focus on Gaza. This would force Starmer to choose between whipping his MPs for the subsequent vote – which could lead to frontbench resignations – and a free vote, which would be damaging for his authority. The Labour leader, whose new chief of staff Sue Gray is said to be playing a pivotal role in reaching out to MPs, has a small window in which to attempt to unite his party.
[See also: Rishi Sunak’s biggest weakness is his own side]