House of Commons Gaza debate: What happened during the chamber’s day of chaos?

The House of Commons endured a day of acrimony and descended into chaos, concluding with more than an hour of claims and criticism about Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s handling of the Gaza ceasefire debate.

The SNP opted to use one of its allocated Opposition Day Debates to press for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the release of all hostages held by Hamas and “an end to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people”.

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn said Labour appeared to “have difficulties” in supporting the SNP’s motion because it said there has been “collective punishment of the Palestinian people”.

Prime Minister’s Questions
SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn criticised the Speaker (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

Here the PA news agency takes a look at what happened on one of the chamber’s most heated days since the Brexit debates of 2016 to 2020.

– What was expected to happen on Wednesday?

This might not be the most exciting place to start but the first stop is to look at the standing orders, which are the written rules which regulate the proceedings of the Commons.

Section 31 (2) explains that when the Government tables an amendment to an Opposition Day Debate motion, the original words of the motion will be voted upon first and if rejected then the Government’s alternative wording will be put to a vote.

The expectation therefore was that the Government amendment to the SNP motion would be selected for debate with both being voted on.

– What did the Speaker do?

Sir Lindsay said he wanted MPs to consider the “widest possible range of options” and announced at the start of Wednesday’s debates that he would be selecting both the Labour amendment and the Government amendment.

He acknowledged this was an exceptional move and this provoked uproar in the chamber, with Conservative former minister Sir Desmond Swayne lampooning the Speaker by shouting “bring back Bercow!” – a nod to the previous Speaker John Bercow, whose controversial tenure concluded with the Brexit wars.

Sir Lindsay also faced shouts of resign and “shame” from the SNP and Conservative benches.

– Why was the Speaker’s decision an issue for many MPs?

The SNP have up to three days on which, as the second largest opposition party, they can lead debates. The selection of the amendments by the Speaker led them to argue they were being denied an opportunity to have a vote on their motion – given that Labour’s amendment would be voted on first and sought to change its content.

Commons Gaza ceasefire motion
Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle announces he has selected amendments tabled by Labour and the Government to the SNP’s Gaza ceasefire motion (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt accused Sir Lindsay of having “hijacked” the debate and said it had become a “political row within the Labour Party”, adding: “Regrettably Mr Speaker has inserted himself into that row with today’s decision and undermined the confidence of this House in being able to rely on its long-established standing orders to govern its debates.”

– Did anyone else question the decision?

Sir Lindsay was warned by House of Commons Clerk Tom Goldsmith about the unprecedented nature of his decision ahead of the clash with MPs, with the senior official saying he felt “compelled to point out that long-established conventions are not being followed in this case”.

The clerk is the chief adviser to the House on matters of parliamentary procedure, privilege and broader constitutional issues.

– What happened next?

Once tempers had calmed after the Speaker’s initial decision, an actual debate took place in the House of Commons. Shortly after 6pm and after the SNP frontbench had finished their speech to wind up the debate, Ms Mordaunt made a point of order on behalf of the Government.

It was at this point she attacked the Speaker’s handling of the matter and suggested the Government would take no part in votes linked to the motion.

As Deputy Speaker Dame Rosie Winterton tried to move towards holding the votes, further points of order were raised during heated exchanges.

Mr Flynn repeatedly demanded to know the whereabouts of the Speaker before SNP MPs and several Conservative MPs walked out of the chamber in an apparent protest at the handling of matters.

It was understood that SNP MPs headed to the voting lobby in anticipation of voting in favour of calls for a ceasefire.

– So they had a vote?

Further points of order continued to be raised, with Conservative MP William Wragg asking if ministers could sign his no confidence motion in the Speaker and Dame Rosie denying claims that Sir Lindsay selected Labour’s amendment amid threats from the party that they would “bring him down” should they win the election.

A vote then took place when Mr Wragg rose to ask that the House sat in private. This was defeated but was interpreted by some as a time-wasting ruse in the belief that if the clock ticked past 7pm – the moment of interruption for the day – that no other votes could take place.

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill
Deputy Speaker Dame Rosie Winterton reads out the vote result (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

If MPs had decided the House should sit in private, the galleries would have been cleared and the broadcast feed would have ceased.

– OK, so at this point there was a vote on the actual debate?

Yes. Labour’s amendment pushing for an immediate Gaza ceasefire was approved by the Commons without a formal vote being called.

The Deputy Speaker ruled that it had been approved on the shouts of MPs. Conservative former minister Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg later challenged this ruling and said: “It is absolutely extraordinary that that noise level was deemed to be ‘aye’.”

Some MPs were left frustrated that a formal vote did not take place, with many wanting to place on record their decision and show their constituents they had supported a ceasefire.

– And how did the Speaker respond to events?

Sir Lindsay returned to the chair once Labour’s amendment had been approved. He apologised to the Commons amid shouts of “resign” from some MPs.

He said he was “very, very concerned about the security” of all MPs, adding: “I wanted all to ensure they could express their views and all sides of the House could vote. As it was, in particular the SNP were ultimately unable to vote on their proposition.

“I am, and I regret… with my sadness, that it’s ended up… in this position. That was never my intention for it to end like this. I was absolutely convinced that the decision was done with the right intentions. I recognise the strength of feeling of members on this issue.”

Sir Lindsay also denied meeting Labour adviser Sue Gray on Wednesday.

– How did MPs respond to the apology?

The SNP’s Mr Flynn said he would take significant convincing that the Speaker’s position was “not now intolerable” and claimed his party had been treated with contempt.

– What is the impact of Labour’s amendment being agreed?

Opposition Day Debate motions are non-binding on the Government. But on matters such as this they at least signal the feeling of the House of Commons. What was clear from the debate is MPs from all sides want to see an end to the violence in the Hamas-Israel conflict, although they disagree on how best to achieve this.

– What happens next?

It is unlikely the Speaker has heard the last of Wednesday’s events and business questions on Thursday may be another occasion when Ms Mordaunt and others consider the matter further.

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