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Gaza Row to Dominate British Politics Again Ahead of By-Election

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(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer are seeking to steer British politics back to domestic affairs ahead of a by-election this week and tone down political conflict over the Israel-Hamas war.

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That effort will be up against the Scottish National Party, which said Monday it will press House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle for a renewed vote on a cease-fire motion after a chaotic debate in Parliament last week ended in partisan recriminations. Thursday’s by-election in Rochdale, a town near Manchester in northwestern England, has turned into a proxy for the Israel-Gaza debate as well.

“There’s no possibility of the SNP initiating a vote that would be binding on UK foreign policy, but a debate this week would achieve the nationalists’ political aim of keeping their policy – and Labour’s discomfort – high on the political agenda, with the Rochdale by-election heightening attention to Gaza at the same time,” Hannah White, director at the Institute for Government think tank, said in an interview.

The original SNP motion calling for a cease-fire and accusing Israel of subjecting Gaza to “collective punishment” — a war crime — didn’t reach a vote last Wednesday and almost cost Hoyle his job. The speaker faced accusations he had helped Starmer avoid another damaging revolt from Labour MPs over the issue.

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn said in a statement his party will seek to “move the Gaza cease-fire debate forward” by introducing a motion to press Parliament to back “concrete actions” to achieve an end to hostilities.

With Sunak announcing a funding package for transport networks in the north of England and Starmer promising to run a “patriotic economy” with plans to boost home ownership and establish the “next generation” of new towns, the two main leaders are trying to move forward.

While Labour has held the Rochdale seat since 2010, the party is no longer fielding a candidate after their original contender repeated a conspiracy theory that Israel was complicit in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

In a district where 19% of respondents describe themselves as Muslim, according to 2021 census data, George Galloway, the 69-year-old candidate for the Workers Party of Britain is seeking to capitalize on Starmer’s original reluctance to call for an immediate cease-fire.

Galloway was a longstanding Labour MP before his party expelled him for attacking former Prime Minister Tony Blair over the Iraq war. He has since twice beaten Labour in strongly Muslim areas.

Safety Threats

Lawmakers have expressed concerns about their safety and security, with many saying they have received threats of violence over their stance on Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. Hoyle cited security concerns as his reason for changing voting procedures last week.

Senior Conservatives spent the weekend dealing with the fallout from comments by a former deputy party chairman that London Mayor Sadiq Khan is controlled by “Islamists.”

On Saturday, Lee Anderson had the Conservative whip suspended, meaning that if not reinstated he won’t be allowed to vote in Parliament or stand as a Tory at the next general election, expected in the second half of this year.

Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and former Tory co-chair, said she’s deeply disturbed for her party’s future after Anderson’s comments.

“We’ve ended up with a group of people who are radical, who divide our country, who set these fires up and leave a nation much more unstable and much more divided,” she told Times Radio on Sunday.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden refused to be drawn on whether he views the comments as racist. Dowden told the BBC he had “deep concern” about threats targeted at MPs, “which are often coming from Islamic extremists.”

“We shouldn’t be shy of calling that out,” he said. Sunak has criticized an “emerging pattern” of intimidation in the wake of the chaotic Gaza cease-fire vote.

Sunak made his first intervention on the impact of pro-Palestine marches on UK politics on Saturday, saying “our democracy cannot and must not bend to the threat of violence and intimidation or fall into polarized camps who hate each other.” Labour politicians, including Khan, accused the Tories of failing to condemn anti-Muslim sentiment.

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