Peace breaks out (in parliament)

Ancient enmities were set aside and a ceasefire was agreed, but James Cleverly was still fighting in the trenches

Wednesday in Parliament began, at least for Conservative MPs, on a jolly note. They were cheered by the arrival on their benches of Lisa Cameron, who has crossed the floor from the Scottish National Party, in a rare example of someone jumping onto a sinking ship.

She entered the chamber, accompanied by Theresa May, to a huge cheer from her new comrades, drowning out the question that was being asked at the time and annoying Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. He told the Tories off, to the former prime minister’s horror. This was the most trouble she’s has been in since that wheat-field incident. She frantically gestured in apology — a May Culpa, if you like.

The further the MP was from having any responsibility for dealing with the situation, the happier they were to talk about it

All this frivolity was quickly dampened. The day was dominated, again, by Gaza, and by the explosion at the Al Ahli hospital. It was the main focus of prime minister’s questions, and then the subject of an urgent question to James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, which he spent over an hour answering. This was quite a long time, given that the answer was “we don’t know much more than you, and what we do know, we’re not saying”. But the urgent question was really a pretext for MPs to air their views on the situation.

A pattern was quickly clear. MPs whose sympathies tend to the Palestinian side of things — generally, but not exclusively, those on the left — said that while the actions of Hamas are despicable, the residents of the Gaza Strip shouldn’t be punished for them. MPs who generally favour the Israeli position — usually Tories, but not always — said that while Palestinian lives must be protected, Hamas must be rooted out. The tricky details about how any of these things might be achieved were treated as too obvious to be worth explaining.

In general, the further the MP was from having any responsibility for dealing with the situation, the happier they were to talk about it.  For the Scottish National Party, whose members can be utterly confident that there is no possible future in which any of them are responsible for British foreign policy, it was an ideal subject.

SNP members threw about terms such as “international law” and “war crime” with the enthusiasm that MPs showed for talking about epidemiology in the pandemic years. Both Sunak and Cleverly were asked repeatedly if they would call for a ceasefire. The foreign secretary’s patience with this began to wear thin after the fifth or sixth time he’d explained that such a thing would require the agreement of both sides.

“Israel is one of the parties engaged in this military operation, but there are others, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” he snapped at the Greens’ Caroline Lucas. “I suggest that anybody calling on Israel to cease military operations should at least — at least — call on the terrorists to do likewise.”

Cleverly wasn’t the only one losing patience

Labour’s Debbie Abrahams suggested he listen to “a third party with people on the ground”. Such an outfit’s assessment, she said, was “probably more realistic than his”. This sparked real anger from Cleverly. “We have people on the ground,” he said, with quiet fury. “My staff are in danger in Gaza. They choose to put their lives at risk in an incredibly dangerous part of the world in order to give me direct insight into the realities on the ground.”

Cleverly wasn’t the only one losing patience. “Let us take it for granted that we’re all broken-hearted,” Eleanor Laing, the deputy speaker, told opposition MPs whose questions were turning into speeches.

Perhaps it was greater proximity to political realities that meant there was little difference in the positions of Sunak and Keir Starmer. Over six exchanges, the pair ranged back and forth across the need for Israel to defend itself while respecting international law, for aid to reach Palestinians, for British citizens — both those taken hostage and those simply caught up in events — to be safely brought home. It was a polite discussion rather than a hostile exchange.

Usually such moments favour the prime minister, who has the advantage of being able to call other leaders, send ships and announce spending. Somehow though Starmer turned it round, using the fact that he was the one asking the questions to lead the discussion, making it seem almost as though he was the senior man checking a subordinate had done everything he was supposed to. The domestic goal for the opposition leader at such moments is to help people imagine him as prime minister. As Starmer made his points — “because hope is at its thinnest, we must work our hardest” — the Conservative MPs behind Sunak nodded along.

Sunak was keen to warn against inflammatory language. “The words we say here have an impact beyond this House,” he said. This sentiment, though, turned out to have its limits. Jill Mortimer, the Tory MPs for Hartlepool, announced that one of her constituents had been murdered by an asylum seeker. “I want these people out of Hartlepool now,” she said. The prime minister’s reply was polite.

Amid all this there was, somehow, still the occasional moment of levity. After this deeply serious back-and-forth, loyal Tory Andy Carter stood up to welcome Sunak’s recent announcement of funding for “east-west high-speed rail lines between Manchester and Liverpool”. The Labour benches, and some Tories, collapsed with laughter at this reference to the cancellation of HS2.

Several other Conservatives tried similar questions, and each was greeted with derision. People ask what Sunak achieved at his conference, and here’s the answer: he created a political world where even his supporters’ questions end up sounding sarcastic.

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