Sir Keir Starmer battled to maintain Labour discipline with members of his frontbench in open revolt about his stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The Labour leader has resisted pressure from within his own party to call for a ceasefire, instead urging both parties in the conflict to agree to a humanitarian pause to allow aid in and people out of the war zone.
Shadow ministers are among senior Labour figures demanding a change in his stance, with frontbencher Alex Cunningham calling for an “immediate ceasefire” less than an hour before Sir Keir delivered his speech.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar also criticised Sir Keir, claiming he had made “hurtful” comments about the conflict and there was “repair work to do” to mend bridges with Muslim communities.
Sir Keir insisted he took collective responsibility – the principle that members of his frontbench team adopt a unified position – seriously, but he gave no indication he was about to sack those who had spoken out.
“It is for me to address collective responsibility, I recognise that,” he said.
“It matters and I take that duty extremely seriously, but I put it in the context of understanding what is driving people in the call for a ceasefire, which is in my judgment not the call that we should be making as things stand.”
He insisted there was “unity” in Labour over the “key issues” of seeking a two-state solution, the need to alleviate suffering in Gaza but also Israel’s right to self defence.
A small group of pro-Palestine protesters gathered outside the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank where Sir Keir delivered his speech and mobbed the Labour leader’s car as he left, forcing police to clear a path for the vehicle.
Sir Keir said his response to the crisis was shaped by responding to both the massacre of Jews in Israel by Hamas and the “humanitarian catastrophe” unfolding in Gaza.
Hamas would be “emboldened” by a ceasefire and start preparing for future violence immediately, the Labour leader said.
Sir Keir said: “While I understand calls for a ceasefire at this stage, I do not believe that it is the correct position now for two reasons.
“One, because a ceasefire always freezes any conflict in the state where it currently lies. And, as we speak, that would leave Hamas with the infrastructure and the capabilities to carry out the sort of attack we saw on October 7.
“Attacks that are still ongoing. Hostages who should be released still held.
“Hamas would be emboldened and start preparing for future violence immediately.”
A humanitarian pause is the “only credible approach”, which could see “the urgent alleviation of Palestinian suffering”.
Sir Keir said the consequences of events in Israel and Gaza would “last for decades” and “the trauma might never fade”.
There was a “rising temperature on British streets” as a result of the conflict, he acknowledged.
The Hamas attacks were “the biggest slaughter of Jews – and that is why they were killed, do not doubt that – since the Holocaust”.
In an apparent message to his critics in the UK, Sir Keir said: “This is terrorism on a scale and brutality that few countries have ever experienced, certainly not this one, and that is an immutable fact that must drive our response to these events.”
It's heart-breaking to see ordinary people caught up in horrors in Israel and Palestine. There must be an immediate ceasefire to get vital aid to Palestinians, give the UN chance seek the release of Hamas-held hostages, and end the deadly attacks on Palestinian and Israeli people
— Alex Cunningham MP (@ACunninghamMP) October 31, 2023
But the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was also on a “previously unimaginable scale” with “thousands of innocent Palestinians dead, displaced, desperate for food and water, reduced to drinking contaminated filth, hiding out in hospitals for shelter whilst in those same buildings babies lie in incubators that could turn off at any moment”.
Sir Keir said it was not an “optional extra” for Israel to obey international law in its response to Hamas and the fundamental right to self-defence “is not a blank cheque”.
The Labour leader said supply of water, medicines, electricity and fuel to citizens in Gaza “cannot be blocked by Israel”.
Before Sir Keir’s speech, Mr Sarwar used a Daily Record interview to criticise Sir Keir’s handling of an LBC interview in which he appeared to endorse Israel cutting off water and power to Gaza – comments the Labour leader later clarified by insisting he was merely stating the Tel Aviv government had the right to self-defence.
The Scottish party leader said: “It was hurtful and I think he would accept it was hurtful. He accepts that it is not his position and it never was his position. But (that) language, framed as it was, did cause hurt.”
He went on to say that the comments could have been clarified and “rebuffed” sooner.
Shadow justice minister Mr Cunningham used a social media message to say there “must be an immediate ceasefire to get vital aid to Palestinians, give the UN chance seek the release of Hamas-held hostages, and end the deadly attacks on Palestinian and Israeli people”.
Yasmin Qureshi, Jess Phillips and Imran Hussain are among other frontbench figures who have joined calls for an end to the fighting.
Sir Keir has also been at odds over its stance on Israel with devolved mayors like Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan, and with Labour-led councils across England.
Meanwhile, Bishops of the Church of England have also stopped short of calling for an immediate ceasefire, instead urging “immediate humanitarian pauses that will enable the wounded and the most vulnerable to be evacuated”.
In a statement on Tuesday, they said they were “holding out hope for a ceasefire in the longer term”.
It comes as the Prime Minister used a phone call with Benjamin Netanyahu to push for an increase in the flow of aid into Gaza, as well as the importance of Israel “taking all possible measures to minimise civilian casualties”.
Downing Street said the pair “discussed the situation in the West Bank and the long-term goal of a two-state solution.
“The Prime Minister noted the importance of all sides avoiding actions that would inflame tensions and keeping hope alive for a more secure and prosperous future for both Israelis and Palestinians.”
He also held a call with President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas.