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How Keir Starmer averted Gaza ceasefire vote crisis

<span>Starmer’s authority ‘is stronger than it was before today’, one Labour source claimed.</span><span>Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/Maria Unger</span>
Starmer’s authority ‘is stronger than it was before today’, one Labour source claimed.Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/Maria Unger

On Wednesday lunchtime Keir Starmer was facing the biggest crisis of his career.

Earlier in the week, he had been warned that as many as 100 of his MPs – including at least two of his shadow cabinet – were willing to rebel by voting for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza unless Labour brought forward its own amendment calling for one.

Having agreed to publish exactly such an amendment, the Labour leader now faced another hurdle: the Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, was being advised not to pick it and instead call a different one from the government.

Hours away from the biggest rebellion of his leadership, Starmer decided to intervene personally and visited Hoyle in his office behind the House of Commons chamber.

Related: Sir Lindsay Hoyle vowed to restore calm but now faces ‘toxic parliament’

Those briefed on the meeting said the Labour leader warned Hoyle that Labour MPs’ security was at risk. Many had been deluged by criticisms, threats and abuse since abstaining on a similar SNP motion in November. With hundreds of protesters congregating outside parliament, they worried worse might be to come.

After a tense meeting, and with Labour MPs desperately stalling inside the chamber, Hoyle eventually agreed. As the Gaza debate started, the speaker announced he would call both the Labour and government amendments, prompting fury on the government and SNP benches and huge relief on the Labour ones.

After a dramatic day in parliament, the speaker’s standing, at least on the government’s benches, had been left badly damaged. Starmer, however, had pulled off a political coup, eventually avoiding any rebellion at all after the government decided to pull out entirely from the evening’s votes.

“We came minutes away from disaster,” said one senior Labour official. “Thank God for Lindsay Hoyle.”

Related: While people die in Gaza, the UK parliament goes to war over the ceasefire | John Crace

Wednesday’s parliamentary action was the culmination of weeks of wrangling on the Labour benches, as MPs petitioned the Labour leader to change tack on Gaza while his advisers warned him against stepping out of line with the perceived international consensus.

The last ceasefire vote in November had triggered the biggest rebellion of Starmer’s tenure, with 56 Labour MPs defying orders to vote for the SNP motion including 10 frontbenchers.

Since then, many of those MPs who stayed loyal have faced protests outside their constituency offices and even their homes. Their arguments about parliamentary process and the difference between a ceasefire and Labour’s proposal of a “humanitarian pause” proved ineffective as the death toll in Gaza mounted.

Meanwhile, Starmer’s position was changing. He began to argue for an immediate end to the violence and a “ceasefire that lasts”. But as he travelled to the Munich Security Conference last week alongside his shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, and the shadow defence secretary, John Healey, he was under pressure to go further and argue explicitly for an “immediate ceasefire”.

As Starmer, Lammy and Healey met international leaders and well-connected diplomats in Munich, they realised international opinion was beginning to shift. With the Israelis beginning to threaten Rafah, western countries were becoming more robust in their calls for an end to the fighting.

A turning point came last Thursday, when Australia, Canada and New Zealand published a joint statement urging an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”, which gave the Labour leader cover to use the same language.

“Don’t underestimate how significant that was,” said one senior Labour official. “Having our Five Eyes partners call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire definitely helped shape our thinking.”

But as Starmer returned to Westminster on Monday he had still not decided what form of words to propose in an alternative to the SNP motion. Frontbenchers, led by the shadow justice secretary, Shabana Mahmood, were dispatched to warn him that anything less than a call for an immediate ceasefire would trigger a massive rebellion.

“Many MPs who remained loyal to him last time told him they couldn’t do so again unless they were allowed to vote for an immediate ceasefire,” said one Labour source. “The situation on the ground has only got worse since then, as has the pressure on ordinary members.”

Starmer was persuaded, and on Tuesday afternoon his whips published their amendment which called for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” before laying out exactly in what circumstances one could be expected to happen.

The trouble was not yet over for the Labour leader, however. During a meeting in parliament, Starmer and Lammy took shadow ministers through their reasoning.

But elsewhere on the estate, shadow foreign minister Wayne David endured a much tougher time as he explained the new position to backbenchers.

Several MPs, including Jess Phillips, who resigned in November as a shadow minister to vote with the SNP, and the backbenchers Sam Tarry and Paul Blomfield, criticised the leadership. Some were angry that the new amendment had too many caveats. Many others were furious about how long it had taken to get the party to take the position it was now taking, and how many had seen their careers damaged in the meantime.

“The frontbench took an absolute battering,” said one person who attended the meeting.

Starmer had an even bigger problem. Labour officials predicted correctly that the government would publish its own amendment to the SNP motion, which under parliamentary precedent would trump the Labour one. If Labour MPs were not able to vote for their own amendment calling for an “immediate ceasefire”, dozens were still willing to vote for the SNP motion.

Labour MPs launched a frantic lobbying campaign aimed at the speaker.

Unless Hoyle allowed the Labour amendment to come to a vote, they said, he would be forcing them to remain loyal to their party or put their own safety at risk. Several told him of the threats they had faced since abstaining on the SNP motion last time.

The party denied reports that Labour whips had even threatened to lead an effort to deselect him as speaker if he did not call the Labour amendment.

Starmer’s last-minute intervention proved crucial. Finally, Hoyle entered the chamber and announced his decision to abandon precedent and call both the Labour and the government amendments. The Tory and SNP benches erupted in anger, while shadow ministers slumped in relief.

The debate eventually began around an hour after it was expected. Five hours later, the Labour amendment passed easily with no resistance from the government.

Starmer had averted disaster and emerged stronger. “We came very close to a huge rebellion,” said one Labour source. “But in the end Starmer’s authority is stronger than it was before today.”