This could have gone badly wrong. Andrew Mitchell faced, as he delivered a statement entitled “Occupied Palestinian Territories: Humanitarian Situation”, about 60 very angry Labour MPs who needed to express their grief and fury at the horrors unfolding in Gaza.
Many of them quoted the comment on Monday by Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, that Gaza is becoming “a graveyard for children”.
If the Development Minister had upheld Israel’s right to self-defence while seeming to downplay Palestinian sufferings, those 60 Labour MPs would have wanted to tear him limb from limb.
Mitchell instead offered himself as someone who is on the side of Labour, and of all decent people: “The whole House shares my pain at seeing so many innocent lives destroyed on and since 7th October.”
“On and since”: a short and capacious formula. The Government, Mitchell went on, is determined “to do the right thing”, rejects both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, upholds “Israel’s right to self-defence”, and is “also committed to discharging our humanitarian duty to help Palestinians”.
Lisa Nandy, from the Labour front bench, said Gaza had seen the highest number of UN workers killed in any conflict, and warned: “Israel’s clear right to self-defence is not a blank cheque.”
Mitchell responded that he wanted to “thank the Honourable Lady very much”, and to “echo her comment about the brave humanitarian workers who have lost their lives”, more than a hundred of them so far.
He agreed that there is “no blank cheque for Israel”, assured the House that “good friends deliver hard messages”, and offered a glimmer of hope that, in the words of Lord Hague immediately after the massacre of Israelis, Hamas committed the massacre of 7th October to try to escape “a future that is rapidly leaving them behind”.
The mood on the Labour benches was noticeably better by the time Stephen Timms (Lab, East Ham) rose to ask the Minister to “distance himself from the description of the Palestine marchers as hate-filled”, and reported that the constituents who have been speaking to him about Gaza “are decent law-abiding families with no truck at all with Hamas”.
Timms was referring to the description by the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, of anti-war demonstrations as “hate marches”.
In his reply, Mitchell began by saying that “the rights of protest are a much cherished right in this country”, and went on: “In terms of what the Home Secretary said, we are all responsible for what we say and she said it in the way that she did.”
This may not look amusing when read, but as spoken by Mitchell it sounded very funny. A roar of laughter went up from the Labour benches: they absolutely loved this jibe at Braverman’s expense, and from now on Mitchell was one of them.
“Can I welcome the balance and tone of the Minister’s statement,” said Ben Bradshaw (Lab, Exeter), who when riled becomes the frostiest of moralists.
Jeremy Corbyn was one of many Opposition MPs who called for a ceasefire in Gaza. He said “all the sensible reasonable voices round the world” are calling for one too, but Mitchell replied that “he will have heard what his successor has said and we agree with that”.
Here was Mitchell not just turning for support to Sir Keir Starmer, but making Starmer’s endorsement of the Government’s policy sound reasonable to quite a few of Starmer’s own backbenchers.
In traditional terms, this was a masterclass in the conciliation so often practised by One Nation Tories such as Stanley Baldwin.
In modern language, it was like watching a therapy class. Labour MPs felt better for pouring out their troubles to an authority figure who took them seriously. Above all they needed to express their anguish rather than bottle it up, and that burst of laughter declared their relief at finding themselves understood.