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The number of Labour frontbenchers breaking from their party’s formal position on Gaza rose to 16 on Wednesday as leader Sir Keir Starmer failed to quell the air of mutiny among many of his MPs over the conflict.
Tan Dhesi, shadow exchequer secretary to the Treasury, accused Israel of inflicting “collective punishment” on Palestinian civilians as he said on social media: “We must condemn indiscriminate killing. Urgently need cessation of hostilities.”
Starmer has called for a temporary “humanitarian pause” to allow aid into the Gaza strip, but with the death toll rising in the Palestinian enclave a series of shadow ministers and whips have publicly demanded a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
The Labour leader has so far not disciplined any senior Labour figures taking a different stance over Gaza, despite his repeated calls for collective responsibility.
By contrast, Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak on Monday sacked a junior member of his government, Paul Bristow, who broke from the UK’s official line and called for a ceasefire.
A Labour official said there is no fixed rule for dealing with MPs who defy the leader’s line over an issue that is a matter of principle rather than a “political challenge” to Starmer.
Starmer used a speech on Tuesday to argue that a full ceasefire would leave Hamas, which killed around 1,400 Israelis on October 7, with the capability to carry out repeat attacks. Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza has killed at least 8,805 people, according to Palestinian officials.
A temporary humanitarian pause, supported by the British government, the US and EU, would allow aid into Gaza and alleviate Palestinian suffering, he argued.
The Conservatives have started to draw attention to the divisions in the Labour party over the issue. One government official suggested the scale of Labour frontbenchers breaking ranks showed Starmer lacked leadership.
Starmer said in his speech on Tuesday: “It’s my job to ensure we do have collective responsibility. I will do it sensitively and engaging with my front benches.”
But while Conservative MPs have appeared far more united behind Sunak’s response to the conflict, signs of unease from some quarters of the Tory parliamentary party have begun to surface.
Bristow’s intervention and sacking came after two other Conservative MPs signed a parliamentary motion that effectively called for a ceasefire. Almost 40 Labour and almost 40 Scottish National Party members have signed the same motion.
One of the Tory MPs, Sir Peter Bottomley, the father of the House of Commons, told the Financial Times he did not want to get “hung up on language” regarding a ceasefire or humanitarian “pauses” in the hostilities, but stressed the important thing was to “stop all the suffering” in Gaza.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a former chair of the Tory party and a Muslim peer, has been an outspoken critic of what she describes as the government’s “unbalanced approach to this war”.
She claimed “numerous” other Conservative peers and MPs were also “deeply concerned” but were “reluctant to speak out” because to do so had “the potential to be career ending” within the party.
Alicia Kearns, Conservative chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, told the FT she wanted to hear the government adopt a greater emphasis on demanding a humanitarian pause in the fighting.
In order to effectively persuade an ally to embrace a humanitarian pause, it is imperative for the government to exhibit a united, and cohesive front deploying a collective voice,” Kearns said.