UK Parliament speaker under fire as shambolic ceasefire debate exposes threats to MPs

Lindsay Hoyle admits mistakes in push for separate motions so lawmakers could be free to vote without fear of attack over stances; MP says his parents’ lives were threatened

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli demonstrators wave Palestinian flags and hold placards as they protest in Parliament Square in London on February 21, 2024, while a motion in the the House of Commons calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza was debated. (Adrian DENNIS / AFP)
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli demonstrators wave Palestinian flags and hold placards as they protest in Parliament Square in London on February 21, 2024, while a motion in the the House of Commons calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza was debated. (Adrian DENNIS / AFP)

The chaotic debate over a ceasefire in Gaza reverberated through Britain’s Parliament on Thursday as the speaker of the House of Commons faced calls to resign, and lawmakers said they feared for their safety amid pressure from all sides of the issue.

After more than six hours of sometimes heated debate on Wednesday, both the governing Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party, or SNP, refused to participate in voting on the question. That left Labour, the largest opposition party, with the largely hollow victory of passing its version of a nonbinding motion calling for an “immediate humanitarian” ceasefire unopposed.

Anger over the way the debate unfolded led to more than 50 lawmakers submitting letters of no confidence in Speaker Lindsay Hoyle on Thursday. Hoyle was meeting with the leaders of all three main parties to plot a way forward.

Underlying the parliamentary tug-of-war are rising tensions over the Israel-Hamas war, with hundreds of thousands of people marching through London last Saturday in support of the Palestinian cause and figures showing that the number of antisemitic incidents in the United Kingdom jumped almost 150 percent last year.

That is spilling over into Parliament, where the Gaza issue has been “weaponized” and some lawmakers believe they have to vote a particular way to ensure their own safety and the safety of their families, Conservative Charles Walker said during Wednesday’s debate.

“This is a far bigger issue than the debate we’re having tonight, because if people are changing their votes in this place, or changing their behaviors in this place, because they are frightened of what may happen to them or their families out there, then we have a real problem,” Walker said. “So this point scoring off each other is not going to resolve many issues.”

Speaker of the UK House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle speaks during a series of urgent questions in the House of Commons, London, February 24, 2024. (PRU / AFP)

Wednesday’s debate was triggered when the SNP put forward a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire that highlighted the devastation caused by Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The Labour Party offered an amendment that stressed Israel’s need to ensure it never again faces massacres like those that were carried out by Hamas on October 7. The government countered with its own amendment restating its call for an “immediate humanitarian pause” in the fighting.

In an effort to ease tensions in Parliament, Hoyle sought to allow separate votes on all three motions.

But the speaker’s carefully constructed compromise collapsed when the government withdrew its motion because Hoyle’s decision departed from House of Commons traditions under which he was expected to reject the Labour amendment. The SNP followed suit, saying lawmakers would no longer have an opportunity to vote on its proposal.

Hoyle apologized Thursday and acknowledged that he made a mistake. But he said that he was trying to make sure that all lawmakers had the chance to make their positions clear in a climate of threat and intimidation.

“I have a duty of care that I will carry out to protect people,” he told the Commons. “It is the protection that led me to make a wrong decision, but what I do not apologize (for) is the risk that has been put on all members at the moment. I had serious meetings yesterday with the police on the issues and threats to politicians for us heading to an election,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t share the details of the “frightening” threats received by politicians recently.

Conservative MP James Grundy revealed in the Commons Wednesday that after a previous Commons vote, “my elderly parents were threatened with being stabbed to death.”

Another Conservative lawmaker Paul Bristow said an online troll threatened to show his wife a “real man” after calling for a ceasefire — an apparent rape threat.

In January, Conservative MP Mike Freer said he would not seek reelection over fear of threats for his pro-Israel views, and after his office was targeted in an arson attack in December.

File: Conservative MP Mike Freer in an interview to Sky News outside his constituency office in North London, December 26, 2023. (Screen capture: Sky News. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law.)

Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt, who represents the government, blamed Labour for the chaotic scenes during Wednesday’s debate.

“This House will never bow to extremists, threats, or intimidation,” she told the Commons on Thursday. “It has not, it will not, it must not.

“And I would ask all honorable members not to do this House a further disservice by suggesting that the shameful events that took place yesterday were anything other than party politics on behalf of the Labour Party.”

But the Institute for Government, an independent think tank focused on effective government in the UK, criticized politicians on all sides of the issue for allowing a meaningful debate on Gaza to descend into “embarrassing chaos.”

All of the parties are being disingenuous about their motives, with the government and SNP mostly upset, because they lost an opportunity to highlight the divisions within Labour over its Gaza policy, Hannah White, the institute’s director, wrote in an analysis published Thursday.

Labour, trying to balance pressures from pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters, only recently changed its policy to support calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

“Political game-playing over parliamentary procedure is unedifying at the best of times, but for parliamentarians to behave in this way during a debate about a conflict in which tens of thousands are dying has undoubtedly brought Parliament into disrepute,” White said.

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