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18 October 2023

PMQs today: Keir Starmer reaches a careful balance on Israel

The Labour leader is seeking to draw attention to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza without reopening old divides.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The first PMQs after conference season is usually a fiery edition, with both leaders eager to challenge the policies announced by their opponents and to capitalise on any momentum gained. In normal times, one would expect Rishi Sunak to be questioned by Keir Starmer on his sudden U-turn on HS2 and the shambolic announcement of transport funding that followed, and for the Prime Minister to perhaps accuse Labour of wanting to concrete over the green belt.

Today’s session was an altogether different affair. In the wake of the devastating explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, in which hundreds of civilians were killed, the usual cut and thrust of party politics was put to one side.

The first question, from the SNP’s Chris Law, concerned opening the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt to allow humanitarian aid and to facilitate the escape of British nationals trapped in Gaza. Then the former Conservative home secretary and chancellor Sajid Javid spoke eloquently about the disturbing rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK, and asked about an immediate policy to remove the visas of foreign nationals who commit hate crimes here.

The tone had been set, and by the time Starmer took to his feet it was clear there would be no partisan combat. All six of his questions concerned the Hamas terror attacks of 7 October, the plight of the hostages still held by the group, the Israeli military response, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza and the future of the region.

[See also: Rachel Reeves: Why I always do business over breakfast]

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For Sunak, this was a straightforwardly statesmanlike performance. On this, the first breaking international crisis he has faced as Prime Minister, he is in close alignment with the Labour leader. Sunak assured Starmer that he would update the House as soon as British intelligence had information about the cause of the hospital explosion, confirmed that he was speaking with Qatar and other powers in the region to negotiate the return of the hostages and that he had raised the issue of humanitarian access, and condemned the rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia since the attacks. “It is Hamas and Hamas alone that is responsible for this conflict,” he reiterated.

Instead of the usual cheers and boos from the benches there were sombre nods on both sides of the House as Sunak answered the questions. Starmer ended with a rallying call, stating “the enemies of peace and democracy would like nothing more than for us to become divided and abandon our values” and inviting Sunak to agree that “this House must strive to speak with one voice in condemnation of terror, in support of Israel’s right to self-defence, and for the dignity of all human life that cannot be protected without humanitarian access to those suffering in Gaza and the constant maintenance of the rule of international law”. Sunak accepted the call for unity: “I agree. We will in this House speak with one voice.”

It was more difficult terrain to navigate for Starmer. While MPs from all parties have been quick to express their horror and condemnation at the Hamas attacks, the pressure on the Labour leader from his own backbenchers to take a more nuanced line with regards to Israel’s reaction has grown more intense as the bombing in Gaza has continued and at least 3,000 Palestinian lives are reported to have been lost. Starmer has been emphatic in distancing Labour from the anti-Semitism scandal that plagued it under its previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Several prominent Labour figures, including Corbyn, took to social media last night to repeat Hamas’s claim that Israel was responsible for the devastation at the hospital (despite intelligence to date proving inconclusive). Starmer’s robust defence of Israel has angered some Labour colleagues, and is perhaps the greatest test of his leadership among MPs and activists so far. He had a delicate balance to strike, drawing attention to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza without reopening old divides.

Though other MPs, mostly from the SNP but also the Conservatives’ Crispin Blunt, pressed Sunak harder on whether the reaction from Israel should be considered a war crime, there was little discord in the House. The shock and horror at recent events are too raw. How long this uneasy accord will remain as the conflict continues is a different question.

[See also: The strange discord of being British and Jewish]

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