Artillery Row

Playing politics

Parliament was at its most preposterous today

Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, was running late. He arrived in the Commons chamber moments before Prime Minister’s Questions was due to start, having to squeeze past Rishi Sunak to get to his chair, where one of his deputies, Eleanor Laing, had been holding the fort. As soon as the session was over, he disappeared again. Something was up.

PMQs itself was a quiet session. Keir Starmer asked a series of questions about the Post Office, giving  Sunak repeated opportunities to align himself with Kemi Badenoch’s full-spectrum attacks on its former chairman Henry Staunton. The prime minister notably failed to do so. Badenoch herself was absent. Our presumption was that she’d been barricaded inside one of Whitehall’s nuclear bunkers, her phone confiscated, her screamed promises of violent revenge against anyone who dares question her good name only barely audible through several inches of steel. 

The real action was elsewhere. But where? Rosie Winterton, another deputy, was now in the chair, and began hearing a series of points of order. These are not unusual. They’re a way for MPs to correct the record, to raise an issue, or to complain about the behaviour of others. There were a couple about Badenoch, and then John McDonnell asked for protestors outside Parliament to be allowed in to take shelter from the rain. Winterton looked distinctly unimpressed by this idea, and gave what might be called a holding reply. As in: “Please continue to hold, your point of order is important to us.”

But the points of order kept coming, almost all from Labour, and increasingly obscure. Finally, it was time for the next bit of business, Tory Therese Coffey’s Ten Minute Rule Bill. These, too, are a regular bit of procedure allowing MPs to raise an issue. They’re usually a helpful moment to nip to the loo. But on this day, once Coffey had finished speaking, Labour’s Chris Bryant rose to oppose her. This isn’t unheard of, but it’s very unusual. By now Winterton too had disappeared, and another deputy, Roger Gale, was in the Speaker’s musical chair. 

As for Bryant, it was very hard to escape the thought that he was stalling. He rambled across the relative merits of regulatory convergence and divergence and the Vienna conventions, all the time sounding like nothing so much as a contestant on a Radio 4 panel show, though not one where repetition or deviation are banned. In front of him the clock ticked away. What was going on? 

The answer came from the SNP benches, which were becoming increasingly restless. Wednesday afternoon was one of the party’s allotted days to decide what was debated in Parliament. The chosen subject was the need for a ceasefire in Gaza. This might sound uncontroversial — are there any MPs who don’t want the shooting to stop? Indeed, to stop immediately? But by some unfortunate mischance, the SNP had chosen a wording for its motion that Starmer wouldn’t be able to support. 

That meant Labour MPs faced a choice between being denounced as baby killers or voting against their leader. Obviously this couldn’t have been the SNP’s intention: they spent the afternoon assuring us how deeply they cared about the suffering of the Palestinian people, so it’s impossible to imagine them exploiting it for a cheap domestic stunt. But they had certainly stumbled across a great way to embarrass their main opponent. 

Labour had attempted to get out of this by tabling an amendment to the SNP motion that also called for an immediate ceasefire, but without the offending language. Unfortunately the government had —  and again, these are all honourable men and women, so we must assume this too was bad luck — tabled its own amendment, which although it contained both the words “immediate” and “ceasefire”, didn’t have them next to each other, making it too weak for hassled Labour MPs. And parliamentary protocol meant that it would be the government amendment, not the Labour one, that was voted on.

Offstage, as Bryant rambled, and then demanded a vote on Coffey’s motion which somehow took an unusually long time, Labour MPs were trying to persuade Hoyle that their amendment should be called as well. How exactly this was done is unclear. Conservative MP Maria Caulfield claimed it was the work of Sue Gray, who is rapidly rising up the Tory demonology. There were reports of threats to Hoyle’s position under a Labour government. Back in the chamber we were wondering how long this would take. Would a Labour member have to fake a heart attack to further delay things? 

Finally, looking strained, Hoyle appeared. “This is a highly sensitive subject,” he began, before announcing there would be votes on both the Labour and the government amendments. The SNP were in outrage. Leader Stephen Flynn leaped from his seat and walked out the door. Hoyle tried to continue, revealing that his clerk had written a formal disagreement with the decision. The rules on amendments were, he said “an outdated approach”. SNP MPs, who often affect frustration at archaic rules, threw up their hands in mockery and outrage. On the Labour front bench, they looked quietly pleased.

the sum of it was manoeuvring for narrow advantage in a debate that everyone kept piously announcing was of the utmost seriousness

Does all this sound arcane, embarrassing, beneath the standards we should expect of our parliament? Good, because that has conveyed exactly what was happening. You could defend any single piece of it: the SNP were raising an important issue; they and the government are entitled to try to embarrass their shared enemy; Labour had every right to stall while they found a way round it; Hoyle has a point that Parliament should be free to vote on different options. But the sum of it was manoeuvring for narrow advantage in a debate that everyone kept piously announcing was of the utmost seriousness.

As the vote approached, things somehow contrived to become even more awful. Penny Mordaunt rose to say, in essence, that if the vote on Gaza couldn’t be used to embarrass the Labour Party, then the government wouldn’t take part in it. This, to general bafflement, meant that the SNP motion would no longer be voted on. There followed an hour of chaos. At one point MPs did vote, but it was somehow on whether they should sit in private. The SNP were livid. Tories were furious. Labour MPs largely stayed quiet.

Hoyle finally appeared, and gave a statement that mixed sorrow at how things had worked out with occasional moments of fury at some of the heckles aimed in his direction. The SNP want him gone. The Conservatives believe he was manipulated. Doubtless all this will turn out to prove whatever everyone already thought about British politics, and we must hope that this will be some comfort to the people of Gaza.

Let’s imagine for a moment that anyone in the Commons had believed what they were saying about the vital importance of the moment. If MPs wanted to, they could agree in five minutes on a form of words calling for the Israelis and Hamas to stop killing each other and start working towards a two-state solution. But MPs know that if they could fix things in the Middle East, it would already have happened. That, presumably, is why they feel free to play games.

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