Sunak’s dilemma

What do you do when all your choices are bad ones?


“Can I thank the leader of the opposition for his support and his constructive comments?” Rishi Sunak said, after Keir Starmer has said his piece on the Middle East crisis. In a country that seems ever more divided, what joy to find that, on this issue at least, there is not a sliver of difference to be found between the two men.

Other opinions are available. When the prime minister had finished giving his statement to parliament on his recent tour of the region, it seemed like every Labour MP in the chamber rose to indicate that they would like to speak in response. Few of them, it turned out, were bursting to tell him what a great job he was doing.

Rishi Sunak, the dutiful head boy, doing the reading, getting on with the job

Sunak’s position was that he was trying his best in a difficult situation. “Last week I visited the Middle East bringing a message of solidarity with the region,” he began. This must have been interesting, as the Middle East conspicuously lacks solidarity with itself. But he had moved on. He’d been speaking to all sorts of people, moving, shaking, trying to find points of agreement, trying to get aid in and hostages out.

“This is not a time for hyperbole and simplistic solutions,” he said. That had been two weeks ago, at Conservative conference, he didn’t add. “It is a time for quiet and dogged diplomacy.” Rishi Sunak, the dutiful head boy, doing the reading, getting on with the job.

On all this Starmer agreed. There wasn’t a paragraph in his speech that couldn’t have come from Sunak’s. We had wondered if he would have shifted position from last week, following the unease within Labour at the Israeli response to the Hamas attack, but the language was indistinguishable: Israel had a right to self-defence within the law. Behind him, the response was muted. In the hour that followed, it would become clear that quite a lot of Labour MPs – and, to be fair, some Tories – would like a firmer line, and a call for a ceasefire.

The median Labour MP was probably closer to SNP leader Stephen Flynn. He opened by condemning the Hamas attack. “However,” he went on, and we knew we were getting to the meat of it. The treatment of Gaza was “collective punishment”, a breach of international law.

There are some political issues where all the options are bad ones

What was needed, Flynn said, was a ceasefire. MP after MP joined this call, always speaking as though it would apply to both sides, although there’s no evidence Hamas has any interest in a political resolution to the problems of the region. What was striking was Sunak’s reluctance to engage with the idea. He presumably has his reasons for not joining the call, but he wouldn’t tell us what they were. If he thinks it’s a facile idea, he could do worse than say so.

There was no clear division on party lines on Monday, but we can say a few things. Looking at attendance, Labour MPs are a lot more interested in the Middle East than Tories. Listening to Labour questions, the focus of their concern is the people of Gaza. It was hardly a surprise that Jeremy Corbyn thinks Israel should stop its attacks. It was more significant that Jess Phillips, hardly a leftist outrider, asked how Sunak would respond if he decided Israel had acted illegally.

But on the front benches, both leaders are trying to walk increasingly difficult lines. Sunak only made a political point when responding to Corbyn, reminding him that he’d once described Hamas as “friends”. He was anxious to allay the concerns of both British Jews and British Muslims. Starmer had his own tricky path to negotiate. There is the pressure from his party, but he seems to take the view that the great domestic political danger in this crisis is looking wobbly. Perhaps both he and Sunak are learning that there are some political issues where all the options are bad ones.

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