Katy Balls Katy Balls

Starmer’s foreign policy problem is only just beginning

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Katy Balls has narrated this article for you to listen to.

This could have been the week that Keir Starmer buckled under pressure from his party and called for a ceasefire in Gaza. A fifth of his MPs have publicly backed one, including 13 frontbenchers and big names such as Anas Sarwar, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. Starmer’s suggestion in a radio interview that Israel could be justified in defending itself by cutting off electricity and water to Gaza had already led to more than 25 Labour councillors quitting, while several shadow ministers are on resignation watch. 

Labour’s divisions over Israel are more complicated than the party right vs the hard left

Instead of U-turning in the face of party mutiny, Starmer doubled down. A ceasefire freezes a conflict, he said, and would leave Hamas ‘with the infrastructure and the capabilities’ to carry out a second attack on Israel. It was not quite a Clause-IV moment, but a significant one nonetheless. He knows that he is facing a test for a would-be prime minister. Many floating voters want to know: would he stand up to his party? He’s now given the answer.

Or at least he’d like it to be seen that way. In private, he’s more equivocal and is yet to discipline a single shadow minister for not towing the party line. ‘He knows if he did then resignations would follow,’ says a senior party figure. He suspended the Labour whip from a backbencher for using the controversial phrase ‘between the river and the sea’, but only after the Tories sacked a ministerial aide for contradicting the government line. As the conflict in Gaza goes on, Starmer will face more internal criticism for his position. His best hope is that Joe Biden calls for a ceasefire soon. ‘Keir needs cover to do it,’ says a sympathetic Labour MP. 

‘Oh no! We’ve gone back to basics again.’

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