On Gaza, Sunak's Tories and Starmer's Labour have merged into a single pro-war party
According to political theory, the primary task of an opposition is to oppose, to identify dishonesty, to ask awkward questions and offer something different.
Rather than cause problems for the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Starmer makes life easy for him.
It means that something anti-democratic and sinister at Westminster is taking place. Sunak’s Conservatives and Starmer's Labour Party have merged. On Israel and Palestine they form a cross-party cartel.
The real gulf in British politics is not between Tory and Labour. It's between a hegemonic political class at Westminster, largely supported by mass media, hell-bent on supporting an Israeli campaign of indiscriminate slaughter inside Gaza.
And on the other side an alienated majority of inherently decent British people who support an immediate ceasefire. This estrangement of the British media-political elite from ordinary people screams out for analysis.
Let’s start by examining the most recent example of Starmer’s dereliction of his responsibility as leader of the opposition. On 9 January, Foreign Secretary David Cameron gave evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
Cameron was out of his depth. At one point Cameron actually appeared to accept that Israel was committing war crimes when he said: "One of the things we’d like the Israelis to do is switch the water back on"- an implicit acceptance that Israel had turned the water off.
Scottish National Party MP Brendan O’Hara, Cameron’s biggest tormentor, asked him whether he had received advice from foreign office lawyers that Israel was in breach of international humanitarian law.
It is inconceivable to me that any foreign office lawyer could or would have advised that Israel’s actions fall within international law
This exchange makes for painful viewing. Cameron ducked and dived, dodged the question, answered other questions he had not been asked, and claimed not to remember what advice he’d received from officials.
But O’Hara stuck to his task and eventually the wretched Cameron stated, on the record and in front of the cameras, that he had not been advised that Israel’s actions were in breach of international humanitarian law.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this exchange at a time when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is considering whether Israel is committing Genocide in Gaza.
And I find it hard to believe the foreign secretary’s protestations.
The evidence is overwhelming.
Over the weekend, Middle East Eye reported that Cameron recommended British arms sales to Israel despite "serious concerns" in the Foreign Office that it had breached international law in Gaza, according to a government document filed in the High Court.
It is inconceivable to me that any foreign office lawyer could or would have advised that Israel’s actions fall within international law. I also find it inconceivable that Cameron would not have seen such advice, had it been given. Or that he would have been unable to remember it, as he suggested at one stage. Yet Cameron has got away with his House of Commons debacle - and for one reason only.
Starmer, leader of the opposition, wasn’t doing his job. Cameron’s performance in the Commons would have been meat and drink to any opposition leader worth his or her salt.
Imagine the mayhem that the late Labour leader John Smith (who led the party from 1992-94) could have made out of Cameron’s hapless evidence session. He would have mocked the foreign secretary’s forgetfulness, asked why he could not remember what papers he’d seen, made fun of his evasive answers, and demanded publication of the actual advice.
And he would have gone to war with Cameron’s unintended admission that Israel had turned the water off. He would have been incredulous at Cameron’s revelation that he does not know whether or not Gaza is occupied, given that thousands of Israeli troops are actually physically present on the ground - and even before the 7 October attack it was the British official view that Gaza is under Israeli occupation.
Any decent opposition leader would have asked why Britain is providing arms to a country committing war crimes in plain sight?
Instead silence from Starmer.
David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, is way out of his depth and not up to the job.
The last thing Starmer wants is an effective Labour foreign affairs spokesman when it comes to asking tricky questions about British complicity with Israeli atrocities.
It is telling that none of the MPs asking the questions at the Foreign Affairs Committee interrogation which got Cameron into trouble came from Starmer’s Labour. O’Hara, the man who inflicted the damage, is a Scottish National Party MP.
He received important support from Alicia Kearns, who is making a reputation for herself as a formidable chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Kearns is a breath of fresh air, but she’s not Labour either. She is a dissident Tory.
Given Starmer's record in this area, it is reasonable to speculate that Labour members of the committee were instructed not to cause too much trouble.
Remember that Labour Party branches have been banned from discussing the conflict and elected representatives “strongly advised” not to attend pro-Palestine demonstrations, according to several Labour councillors in Oxford
This has been the Labour leader’s pattern of behaviour ever since the 7 October Hamas-led attack.
When Sunak announced Britain’s "unequivocal" support for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, a serious opposition leader would have asked the tricky questions: would the British government back Israel in all circumstances? Even in the event of Israel committing war crimes?
A trusted source has confided to me that even the White House was staggered that the British prime minister stuck his neck out so far in sending unequivocal backing to Netanyahu.
But the leader of the Labour Party actually went even further than Sunak, insisting that Israel had the right to inflict collective punishment on Gaza by cutting off water and electricity supplies.
Any opposition leader worth their salt would have asked Sunak to explain why neither he nor any of his ministers have complained about the barrage of genocidal remarks uttered by Netanyahu, the Israeli president and many other members of the Israeli government.
If Starmer was doing the job of opposition leader he would have mocked Cameron’s poorly briefed claim to Sky News' Trevor Phillips on 14 January that there was no evidence of Israeli genocidal intent.
As Cameron ought to have known (and Trevor Phillips failed to point out), the 84-page document presented by South Africa to the International Criminal Court provides abundant evidence of Israeli genocidal intent.
Had Starmer been doing his job, he would have asked probing questions about Britain’s bombing campaign against the Houthis. Instead, the Labour leader gave his immediate backing to the attack, breaking the promise he made four years ago that he would insist on a Commons vote before committing Britain to war. Starmer rejected the claims that he ditched that pledge.
Meanwhile, recently Starmer spoke about Labour’s decision to drop its commitment to a Palestinian state. We should not make too much of this intervention. Labour quietly decided on the new policy last autumn. But as far as I can determine this is the first time that Starmer has articulated the new position in public.
Starmer misleadingly framed the change as a break with Jeremy Corbyn’s policy. In fact it was Ed Miliband who threw the Labour Party behind the Palestinian state, and it was his policy that was being repudiated.
There are, however, serious questions to be asked about the timing of the Starmer intervention. Why now, three months into the war and in the wake of over 25,000 Palestinian deaths in Gaza? Starmer's timing is especially odd at a moment when Netanyahu is making it clear that he will not tolerate a two-state solution.
Starmer achieved what appears to be the core aim of his leadership when it comes to the Middle East; he aligned Labour policy with the Conservatives
It was telling that the Labour leader chose to speak on the subject at an event hosted by the Jewish Labour Movement. This was a partisan venue. I cannot understand why Starmer did not choose a neutral space, for instance, the Chatham House think tank, to sound off on Palestine.
To make matters even worse, I understand that Starmer did not consult Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission in London, in advance.
This snub proves that under a Starmer premiership, there is no possibility Palestinians could trust Britain to play an intermediary, let alone arbitration, role in any peace talks designed to bring about a solution to the Middle East conflict.
However clumsy and partisan his execution was, Starmer did achieve what appears to be the core aim of his leadership when it comes to the Middle East; he aligned Labour policy with the Conservatives.
Both main parties now agree that British support for a Palestinian state should come as part of the peace process negotiation rather than an objective to be pursued in its own right.
Cross-party alliances: A bad sign
In effect, this position gives Israel something very close to a veto. I have sometimes heard it said that the House of Commons is "at its best" when government and opposition agree. In my long experience, these cross-party alliances are often a bad sign.
Two especially relevant and terrible examples come to mind.
The first is the Iraq war. Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith threw his weight behind then Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the invasion, making far more effort to align himself with Blair than ask testing questions about legality and war objectives. Just like Starmer in today’s Middle East crisis, Duncan-Smith gave unquestioning support and asked no questions.
That war was an unmitigated disaster.
The second is Cameron’s Libyan intervention 13 years ago, fully supported by both major parties, and another calamity.
Starmer’s handling of the escalating crisis in the Middle East has been a disaster for the Labour Party, and for Britain - though doubtless gratifying for Netanyahu.
As the Israeli army has pounded Gaza with one of the most sustained air assaults in world history, Starmer has stuck to his uncritical pro-Israeli position.
He started out by throwing the weight of the Labour Party behind Israeli plans for the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. He’s gone public on Labour’s change of policy on support for a Palestinian state.
He blindly accepted the widening of the conflict to the Red Sea. And he completely failed in the most basic task of an opposition leader: namely, to hold the government of the day to account.
As a result, the two largest British political parties are today aligned in support of Israel’s war on Gaza, in defiance of majority British opinion, in denial about Israeli atrocities, and oblivious to the genocidal language used by the most senior Israeli politicians.
Meanwhile the International Court of Justice ponders whether to accept South Africa’s demand that the court should issue a suspension order against Israel’s military operation on the grounds that it is committing genocide.
If the court rules in South Africa’s favour then Rishi Sunak, as well as US President Joe Biden, will be wide open to charge that they are aiding and abetting genocide.
And so will Labour’s Keir Starmer.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.