Emperor Napoleon famously (if as with most good quotes, apocryphally) preferred lucky generals to good ones. Judging by the events of the last couple of weeks, Sir Keir Starmer is one of life’s luckier generals.
As I noted in my most recent piece on Suella Braverman, “politically it is absurd that the Conservatives have managed to make this week about their divisions rather than Labour’s”. For week, read month. Even as the Opposition suffered a string of resignations at council level, and Starmer was bounced into shifting his rhetoric (if not yet his policy) on Gaza, the Tories managed to keep their own rows front and centre.
Then the Government was plunged into crisis by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Rwanda policy, just as Labour suffered an absolutely extraordinary rebellion over the Middle East. Eight shadow ministers and two parliamentary private secretaries have resigned from the front bench in order to vote for an SNP motion calling for an immediate ceasefire.
It’s a dramatic challenge to Starmer’s authority, one made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s over something so meaningless. A vote in the British parliament is not going to matter one whit towards the situation on the ground in the Levant.
Nobody can sincerely believe that the Labour leader is a bloody-handed warmonger. Like Rishi Sunak, he supports humanitarian pauses and would obviously back a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
But there’s no getting around the fact that simply calling for a ceasefire is as unrealistic a policy as demanding “safe and legal routes” as a solution to Britain’s border problems. A ceasefire would need to be bilateral, and it would need there to be some grounds for hoping that a negotiated settlement between the two parties was possible.
That might be the case between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; it is emphatically not the case between Israel and Hamas. That’s Israel and her allies, most significantly the United States, are at present not entertaining anything that would leave Hamas in control of Gaza.
Breaking ranks on that would be a major development in British foreign policy, a big step away from the broad, US-led bloc of western democracies. Starmer, understandably, doesn’t want to make it.
The Labour leader deserves credit for refusing to back down on this. Whilst he hasn’t ruled out a path back for the rebels, he did make clear he’d sack anyone who backed the SNP’s motion.
Yet it bodes poorly for a future Labour government that 56 MPs should be prepared to defy the leadership, on foreign policy no less, at what ought to be the strongest point of his leadership. Normally, parties on the cusp of power tend to be disciplined. They can scent blood, and the leader’s authority is enhanced both by the perception of being a winner and the imminent prospect of government patronage.
If Labour MPs don’t learn the habit of discipline now, any post-election honeymoon for a Starmer government could be very short. Whoever wins next year is going to inherit an extremely difficult in-tray, with huge pressure on the public finances and taxes already high. The Conservatives have demonstrated over the past few years that even a substantial majority isn’t enough to get anything done if your MPs aren’t biddable.
Finally, it will be interesting to see whether, or how much, his standing firm on this question boosts the chances of a some sort of challenger party. We saw after the Iraq War how George Galloway was able to win seats such as Bradford West and Bethnal Green & Bow. Rushanara Ali, MP for the latter, voted against the ceasefire; Aspire, Lutfur Rahman’s communalist vehicle, holds power on Tower Hamlets council.
Such things aren’t likely to make a difference to Labour taking office, of course, not with the polls where they are. But it would be an unhappy development for British democracy nonetheless.