UK Parliament is in turmoil after a debate over a Gaza cease-fire raised fears for lawmakers' safety

FILE - Speaker of the Commons, Lindsay Hoyle arrives to attend a service of thanksgiving for the reign of Queen Elizabeth II at St Paul's Cathedral in London, June 3, 2022 on the second of four days of celebrations to mark the Platinum Jubilee. U.K. lawmakers have called for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war. But the move came after dozens of lawmakers walked out of the House of Commons in protest at how the vote was handled on Wednesday Feb. 21, 2024. (Daniel Leal/Pool Photo via AP, File) (Daniel Leal, AFP or licensors)

LONDON – The chaotic debate over a cease-fire in Gaza reverberated through Britain’s Parliament on Thursday as the speaker of the House of Commons faced calls to resign, and lawmakers said they feared for their safety amid pressure from all sides of the issue.

After more than six hours of sometimes heated debate on Wednesday, both the governing Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party, or SNP, refused to participate in voting on the question. That left Labour, the largest opposition party, with the largely hollow victory of passing its version of a nonbinding motion calling for an “immediate humanitarian" cease-fire unopposed.

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Anger over the way the debate unfolded led to more than 50 lawmakers submitting letters of no confidence in Speaker Lindsay Hoyle on Thursday. Hoyle was meeting with the leaders of all three main parties to plot a way forward.

Underlying the parliamentary tug-of-war are rising tensions over the Israel-Hamas war, with hundreds of thousands of people marching through London last Saturday in support of the Palestinian cause and figures showing that the number of antisemitic incidents in the United Kingdom jumped almost 150% last year.

That is spilling over into Parliament, where the Gaza issue has been “weaponized” and some lawmakers believe they have to vote a particular way to ensure their own safety and the safety of their families, Conservative Charles Walker said during Wednesday’s debate.

“This is a far bigger issue than the debate we’re having tonight, because if people are changing their votes in this place, or changing their behaviors in this place, because they are frightened what may happen to them or their families out there, then we have a real problem,” Walker said. “So this point scoring off each other is not going to resolve many issues.”

Wednesday’s debate was triggered when the SNP put forward a motion calling for an immediate cease-fire that highlighted the devastation caused by Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The Labour Party offered an amendment that stressed Israel’s need to ensure it never again faces attacks like those that were carried out by Hamas on Oct. 7. The government countered with its own amendment restating its call for an “immediate humanitarian pause” in the fighting.

In an effort to ease tensions in Parliament, Hoyle sought to allow separate votes on all three motions.

But the speaker’s carefully constructed compromise collapsed when the government withdrew its motion, because Hoyle’s decision departed from House of Commons traditions under which he was expected to reject the Labour amendment. The SNP followed suit, saying lawmakers would no longer have an opportunity to vote on its proposal.

Hoyle apologized Thursday and acknowledged that he made a mistake. But he said that he was trying to make sure that all lawmakers had the chance to make their positions clear in a climate of threat and intimidation.

“I have a duty of care that I will carry out to protect people,″ he told the Commons. “It is the protection that led me to make a wrong decision, but what I do not apologize (for) is the risk that has been put on all members at the moment. I had serious meetings yesterday with the police on the issues and threats to politicians for us heading to an election."

Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt, who represents the government, blamed Labour for the chaotic scenes during Wednesday’s debate.

“This House will never bow to extremists, threats, or intimidation,” she told the Commons on Thursday. “It has not, it will not, it must not.

“And I would ask all honorable members not to do this House a further disservice by suggesting that the shameful events that took place yesterday were anything other than party politics on behalf of the Labour Party.”

But the Institute for Government, an independent think tank focused on effective government in the U.K., criticized politicians on all sides of the issue for allowing a meaningful debate on Gaza to descend into “embarrassing chaos.”

All of the parties are being disingenuous about their motives, with the government and SNP mostly upset, because they lost an opportunity to highlight the divisions within Labour over its Gaza policy, Hannah White, the institute’s director, wrote in an analysis published Thursday.

Labour, trying to balance pressures from pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters, only recently changed its policy to support calls for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

“Political game-playing over parliamentary procedure is unedifying at the best of times, but for parliamentarians to behave in this way during a debate about a conflict in which tens of thousands are dying has undoubtedly brought Parliament into disrepute,” White said.