Working to make government more effective


Party political game-playing over Gaza conflict brings parliament into disrepute

A bad day in parliament for Lindsay Hoyle has once again exposed the shortcomings of Commons procedure.

Lindsay Hoyle
Lindsay Hoyle has found his position as Speaker called into question.

The unedifying spectacle of political game playing over parliamentary procedure, during a debate about a conflict in which thousands are dying, has brought parliament into disrepute, writes Hannah White

Politicians on all sides contributed on Wednesday evening to the descent of a meaningful debate on a matter of the gravest importance – the conflict in Israel and Gaza – into embarrassing chaos in the Commons chamber. It was a bad day for Parliament which drew comparisons with the worst scenes during the height of the Brexit parliamentary deadlock.  

The relevance of such comparisons was heightened by the first deployment of a new procedure introduced by Speaker Hoyle himself in response to the controversial procedural decisions made by his predecessor John Bercow during Brexit. The Commons Clerk, Tom Goldsmith, recorded in a letter placed in the Commons library the break from precedent represented by Lindsay Hoyle’s controversial decision – to allow Labour’s amendment to the SNP opposition day motion to be decided ahead of the vote on that motion and on a government amendment.  

Speaker Hoyle made a risky and unprecedented procedural decision

In reality Hoyle faced a choice between two unpalatable options. Either to act in accordance with precedent and not select the Labour amendment – a decision that would force the official opposition into the political trap laid for them by the SNP who were trying to have a vote on a motion which would split the Labour party. Or to break with precedent and attempt to allow each of the three main parties a decision on their own version of the Gaza motion.  

Hoyle chose the latter – arguing retrospectively that his motive was to enable all three options to be considered and voted on, and justifying this as necessary to allay MPs’ security concerns. Whatever the justification, attempting this novel course was always going to be risky – relying as it did on the government having the numbers to vote down the Labour and SNP versions of the motion before testing its own.  

And this course was only ever a viable option if the Speaker was convinced he had cross-party agreement to overturn existing precedents – a pretty clear lesson from the furore surrounding Bercow’s Brexit innovations. Presumably Hoyle did think he had such agreement, but for some reason that agreement subsequently broke down – probably at the point that the SNP and Conservatives clocked that the real political beneficiaries of the innovation were the Labour party. But the risk of Hoyle’s decision being seen as giving partisan advantage to Labour – even if the other parties had agreed to the adapted procedure – ought to have dissuaded the Speaker from this risky course in the first place.

Party politics subsumed the substance of the debate

In the aftermath of the unedifying chaos in the chamber – accusations against the Speaker and a walk out from Conservative and SNP MPs – there was a great deal of noise from all parties. But there was also a great deal of disingenuity about the actual motives behind the procedural shenanigans. The SNP was cross that it lost a rare opportunity for the House to decide on a motion of its choosing and to vote on its call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. But in reality Stephen Flynn and his nationalist colleagues will probably be equally happy with the opportunity to decry the stifling of Scotland’s voice at Westminster.  

The government was apparently so cross that it declined to participate in the votes, but the reality is that it can take any number of opportunities to make its own position on Gaza clear, without needing to pass an amendment to an SNP opposition day motion. The truth is that both the SNP and the Conservatives were cross mostly because they were denied an opportunity to expose Labour divisions over Gaza.  

Commons procedure is hopeless for deciding on more than two options

Speaker Hoyle and Labour figures have argued that the departure from the original procedure was justified because opposition day procedure has become outdated in an era in which the Commons normally has a substantial third party. That Commons procedure is hopeless for allowing the House to make decisions on anything other than binary questions is not news. It should have been patently obvious to anyone who watched or participated in previous attempts to consider multiple options – for example on House of Lords reform or the ‘indicative votes’ on different forms of Brexit.  

But the optics of Hoyle recognising this shortcoming of Commons procedure only at the point he decided to rework it in an unprecedented way which was primarily beneficial to the Labour party are terrible for the Speaker – reminiscent of Boris Johnson’s government discovering the shortcomings of the Commons standard system only after it had found Owen Paterson to have breached the rules.  

Apologising for the consequences he had failed to foresee of his decision, Hoyle said repeatedly that he wanted the Procedure Committee to look into the inadequacies of opposition day procedure. This is sensible. But Hoyle is presumably rueing his failure to initiate such a review before the opposition day chaos threw those inadequacies into such relief – because his belated recognition of the problem has instead led to questions about his own impartiality – with over 30 MPs at the time of writing having expressed no confidence in his Speakership.

But, of course, more important than the impact of the opposition day debacle on the position of the Speaker is how the chaotic scenes in the Commons will have looked for anyone with a genuine interest in the substance of the debate. 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.  

Related content

15 JAN 2019 Explainer


What does it mean to ‘table a motion’ in parliament?