The Commons needed to focus on the horror in Gaza. Instead this was a grubby game of political chess

<span>‘Horror was exploited by those jockeying for position at the next election.’</span><span>Photograph: Parliament TV</span>
‘Horror was exploited by those jockeying for position at the next election.’Photograph: Parliament TV

A squalid day in parliament. The most important of debates was the most pointless and dishonest. It preached on the high ground and played politics in the mud of the lowest turf. Too many crocodile tears fell for the more than 29,000 people killed in Gaza and the babies’ bodies we are decorously shielded from. The loftier the sentiment, often the sharper the stiletto under the cloak.

Pause a minute, before we plunge headlong into the skulduggery of Westminster protocol, debating apparently tiny verbal differences that would save not one of the many Gazan lives lost yesterday. In another parliament, the Knesset, they were also sitting and voting, and Benjamin Netanyahu was referring to “an overwhelming majority against the attempt to impose on us the establishment of a Palestinian state”. Pause and consider that, in the face of such obduracy, the two-state solution desired by most of the world will require united diplomacy and muscle. Now consider how here, this horror was exploited by those jockeying for position at the next election.

Will Sir Lindsay Hoyle survive as speaker? Until now, he has enjoyed respect across the house: dull, dutiful and proper after John Bercow’s Brexit fireworks. Yesterday, it seems to me, he did his honourable best to hold the ring fairly between the parties: all would have their motion, all would be debated and voted on. He would not allow cunning procedural use of the rulebook to deny a full debate.

The SNP motion was aimed in rousing language straight to the heart of Labour ranks. Brendan O’Hara, speaking for his party’s motion calling for a ceasefire, perorated magnificently: “We listened to the anguished pleas of innocent Palestinians begging for our help to make it stop. We listened to the anger of millions of people from across these islands.” But, unfortunately, it also listened to that urge to stick a knife in Labour’s sorest spot. Its motion blames Israel for inflicting “collective punishment” on the Gazans, which breaks international humanitarian law. Voting for that would split the UK from all its allies, break diplomacy with Israel and end the growing unity with bolder statements from the EU, US, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. The UK government’s puny weight, let alone the voice of its opposition, would have even less impact in future attempts at peace.

Splitting Labour was the whole purpose of the SNP calling an opposition day debate on Gaza. Labour’s “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” motion went much further than before, but kept in step with allies also on the move: most Labour MPs would have backed it.

But the Tories skewered it using arcane procedure: by putting up their own motion, the rules said that Labour’s would be knocked out, which would force Labour MPs to vote for the SNP motion or abstain, resulting in a potentially huge rebellion. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt that in the back rooms of SNP or Tory strategists, anyone was talking dead babies. Nor, I expect, was Labour, struggling to find a way out of this Tory/SNP trap. A rebellion by more than 100 MPs, pressed hard in their constituencies, would have been badly damaging. The protocol trumped everything.

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Hullaballoo followed Hoyle’s decision to let all the motions through. Labour’s motion passed and Starmer, politically, is relatively unscathed. He seems to be learning to bend as far as he can to keep all wings together, a good sign he is not captured by the adamants advising him from the old Blair camp. But there was no honour to be had in any of this.

Hurt, slightly bewildered, Hoyle crept back to the Commons to apologise for breaking parliamentary convention. Labour had told him its MPs were under threat, afraid of attacks on their families and their security being at risk if they couldn’t register publicly that they had voted for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”. This, say Hoyle’s people, was a pressure that weighed heavily on him.

And if that’s true, that is more serious than anything else that happened in the Commons chaos of yesterday: that MPs, and even their party leaders, are saying they are under such threat, so physically intimidated, that they felt they must vote in a particular way. The speaker seemed to endorse that as a good reason for allowing them the chance to cast a vote under threat. Pause and think about that: it really is a sinister new low.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist