When I was an MP, my constituency, Wycombe, had the highest proportion of Muslim voters of any Conservative-held seat. The constituency with the second highest was Peterborough.
This is the lens through which to view Paul Bristow’s support for a ceasefire in Gaza. The Peterborough MP has a majority of 2,580. Like other MPs with a significant percentage of Muslim voters – in this case and that of Wycombe they mostly originate from Kashmir and Pakistan – he will be feeling the heat over Israel and Gaza.
Who can say what precise mix of voter pressure and personal conviction led him to support a ceasefire on his Facebook page? At any rate, Bristow was then serving as a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology – and thus a member of the Government.
It supports a “humanitarian pause” in Gaza – not a ceasefire. You may think that the distinction has no difference. And Bristow may have believed that Downing Street wouldn’t notice, or that Rishi Sunak would let the matter pass if it did. Not so. Bristow was sacked from the Government earlier this evening.
I wonder if the story would have been different had Bristow been a long-time supporter of the Prime Minister. As it happens, Boris Johnson launched his leadership campaign in 2019 in Peterborough. Bristow wrote admiringly of Johnson after the latter’s resignation as Prime Minister, and went on to support Liz Truss in the leadership election that followed.
Probaby not – because Sunak has other fish to fry here. To put it plainly, there aren’t many Peterboroughs: all 20 seats with the largest percentage of Muslim voters are Labour-held. The Conservative Muslim Forum once published a useful guide that drops further down. Not until you reach Dewsbury, 32nd on it, do you find a Tory-held seat.
Pendle is 34th. Hendon 48th. Peterborough is 51st, Wycombe 55th. The figures are based on 2011 census data, and the relative positions of seats on the list may have changed, but the general picture they present is accurate enough. For better or worse, Muslim voters will have less traction on sitting Conservative MPs than on Labour ones.
The Prime Minister can therefore pile the pressure on Sir Keir Starmer, who is caught between the Government positions and his MPs’ sympathies – if my analyses of recent Commons statements on Israel and Gaza are anything to go by. (See here and here.) As of this weekend, nearly a quarter of Labour MPs had called for a ceasefire.
So have Anas Sarwar, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. At least 12 members of Sir Keir’s front bench are in open revolt. This evening, he took the Labour whip off Andy MacDonald after the latter said “between the river and the sea” at a rally last weekend. The Labour leadership’s judgement will have been that this form of words indicates support for the destruction of Israel.
Sir Keir’s choice is between not sacking front bench dissenters, so inviting claims of weakness, and doing so – thus provoking accusations of over-reacting. Meanwhile, Number Ten will be ready to exploit Labour divisions. Sunak has set a precedent for his own party. And whether Bristow’s support for a ceasefire helps to shore up his local support remains to be seen.