It should have been a straightforward parliamentary vote, albeit one that would likely have embarrassed the UK’s two main parties.

Last week, the Scottish National Party was to present a motion to the British parliament that called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, the release of all Israeli captives in Gaza and an end to the “collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

It should have sparked a wider debate over the UK’s position on an unfolding genocide in Gaza. But after a highly unusual departure from parliamentary protocol, not only did the vote never take place, after just one week, the entire conversation has turned into one about the “threat” to Britain’s democracy from the massive pro-Palestine demonstrations that have been a weekly feature up and down the country for months.

It’s a remarkable turnaround in the public discourse, and a godsend to both the UK’s main political parties, in particular to Labour leader Keir Starmer, sorry Sir Keir Starmer.

UK Prime Minister Rishi “Loadsamoney” Sunak and his ruling Conservative Party can now happily bash away at immigrants, Muslims and other dog whistle targets to appeal to far right voters that represent the party’s best chance of avoiding catastrophic defeat in general elections most likely later this year.

Starmer’s win is even bigger, however. He has avoided what would likely have been an embarrassing vote in parliament, laying bare deep divisions in his own party over an abject Gaza position. It has also presented him with the opportunity to attack Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, just as Labour was leaking Muslim votes over Palestine.

Starmer will be even more pleased that he played an instrumental role in what has turned out to be a quite masterful exercise in manipulating public discourse, whether intentional or not.

It was Starmer who approached Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of Parliament, with reported fears about the safety of MPs should the vote on the SNP’s bill go ahead.

Instead, Starmer urged Hoyle, the House should only vote on a Labour amendment, which omitted any mention of collective punishment in Gaza, condemned instead “terrorism,” and urged an immediate but conditional “humanitarian ceasefire” to secure the release of Israeli captives in Gaza.

Starmer was acting in panic. According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, traditionally close to the Labour Party, the Labour leader had been informed earlier in the day that he was facing a huge rebellion in his own party, with some 100 Labour MPs intending to vote for the greater moral clarity of the SNP bill, and at least two frontbenchers – the opposition party’s senior leadership – ready to resign.

In the end, it didn’t come to pass. Hoyle said he was persuaded that there was a security risk and allowed votes on both the Labour amendment and the government’s own, even weaker amendment, which demanded a ceasefire only if Hamas relinquished control over Gaza and released Israeli captives.

To bypass a vote on the SNP’s motion, however, took what even the Speaker’s own adviser, Tom Goldsmith, protested was a “departure from long-established” convention.

It caused pandemonium in parliament with both the SNP and the Conservatives walking out in protest (for different reasons), and with several MPs calling on Hoyle to resign.

The Labour motion eventually passed unopposed in the most shambolic circumstances.

With his job seemingly on the line, Hoyle apologized, and claimed he had acted out of fears for MPs safety.

For his part, Starmer denied that he had threatened Hoyle, saying he had instead insisted that the Speaker allow the “broadest possible debate” on Gaza, and that he had drafted his party’s amendment after consultation with US and Qatar officials as well as Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

That would be the same Herzog who as far back as October was clear that “an entire nation” was responsible for 7 October al-Aqsa Storm attack.

British media did not question Starmer about why it was appropriate for him to take advice on Labour policy from an Israeli president effectively greenlighting genocide in Gaza. Instead, the news turned to the perceived threats against British MPs.

According to the BBC, some Labour MPs had received threats after supporting Labour’s temporary humanitarian pause motion in November rather than the SNP’s motion for a full ceasefire.

The implication was that MPs and British democracy were at risk from pro-Palestine activists.

This then took an even more inflammatory turn to the role of “Islamists” – for which no definition is ever offered – who, according to deputy Conservative Party chairman and MP Lee Anderson, had “got control” of London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Anderson, a former Labour councilor who became a Conservative member of parliament in 2019, specifically raised the issue of the UK’s many pro-Palestine marches, which have been ubiquitous for months, and particularly large in London, where they have regularly pulled more than 100,000 people.

He had been responding to an article in the Daily Telegraph, entitled “Islamists are bullying Britain into submission,” by Suella Braverman, the former, much lamented, home secretary, who doubled down on similar inflammatory remarks she had made in November and for which she was sacked.

Both try to paint the huge weekly demonstrations, attended by people from all walks of life, as being almost exclusively Muslim, and even worse: “Islamist!”

Again, no definition for Islamist, though Braverman did also include “left-wing extremists” in her “analysis” of the ills that befall Britain.

The remarks were rejected by Khan as “unambiguously ignorant, prejudiced and racist,” and gave Starmer the opportunity to present himself as aghast at the Islamophobia of the Conservative Party, convenient for a leader whose own party, according to opinion polls, stands to lose 50 percent, if not more, of the UK’s Muslim vote over Gaza.

But British media discourse did not dwell long on such racist tropes moving instead swiftly on to whether the government should act to curb pro-Palestine demonstrations.

Sunak, denying any Islamophobia in his party, pivoted instead to demanding that police “do more” to stop what The Times described as “disruptive protests,” otherwise the UK risked descending into “mob rule.”

James Cleverly, who has had the unenviable task of following in the giant footsteps of Bravermen at the home office, also chimed in, telling pro-Palestine protesters that “they’ve made their point” and should stop putting “huge pressure” on policing.

And the man in charge of a government inquiry into policing these demonstrations, Lord Walney, proposed to widen police powers to clamp down on pro-Palestine protests.

In less than a week then, a parliamentary vote over whether and how to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, turned into a domestic conversation about the dangers “Islamists” and pro-Palestine demonstrations pose to the UK.

It was a remarkable turnaround and a win above all for Starmer, whose party could then avoid any difficult questions about why it objected to the SNP’s call for an end to Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinian people.

Questions like: What is NOT collective punishment about the cutting off of water and electricity to Gaza’s 2.3 million people, their forcible starvation, the killing of 30,000 people, including 12,500 children, the destruction of or damage to 60 percent of Gaza’s housing stock, and the forced displacement of 85 percent of its people?

It was a win, if a smaller one, for Sunak, whose full-throated support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza not only did not come under scrutiny, but allowed the government the opportunity to press for more restrictions on British democracy, rather than be pushed into a more humane Gaza policy.

It also showcased a British media primed to panic over “the Islamists” but unwilling to seriously probe UK support for Israeli actions in Gaza.

After all, imagine the outcry if instead of someone saying Islamists had gained control over the London mayor – because, er… he is Muslim? – someone suggested that Zionists had captured the upper echelons of British politics.

After all, such a person could say: Starmer is on record as supporting Zionism “without qualification” and his wife has family in Israel. Lindsay Hoyle too has touted his pro-Israel credentials. His father, Doug Hoyle, was one of the original founders of Labour Friends of Israel. Lord Walney, when plain old John Woodcock, Labour MP, is a former chair of Labour Friends of Israel. Suella Braverman describes her husband Rael as a “proud Jew and Zionist.”

The turn in discourse also shut down parliamentary debate on Gaza. Having apologized to parliament for breaching parliamentary protocol over the original motion, Hoyle has since denied the SNP a fresh vote on its Gaza motion.

But while Labour in particular might feel relieved at having dodged greater scrutiny over its craven Gaza position, it won’t last.

On 29 February, former Labour legislator and now head of the Workers Party of Britain, George Galloway, made yet another political comeback, overturning a 9,500 vote Labour majority to claim the parliamentary seat for Rochdale, in England’s northwest.

He ran his campaign specifically on opposition to Labour’s Gaza policy. And though Labour had abandoned its own candidate in the race, over anti-Semitism allegations, there is little doubt that Galloway has hit a nerve with voters who feel abandoned by both main British parties over their support for Israel’s Gaza genocide.

The Electronic Intifada

Cover Photograph: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and opposition leader Keir Starmer, “two cheeks of the same backside.” PoolZUMAPRESS