The 100 or so protesters outside Downing Street on Wednesday evening claimed to be championing a ceasefire in Gaza. But their chants betrayed them. ‘Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea!’ they shouted, invoking a slogan that advocates the complete eradication of the Jewish homeland.
‘No justice, no peace!’ was another favourite. ‘Let’s make it louder!’, the group’s leader bellowed through her megaphone in a North American accent. ‘We need to make sure Rishi Sunak hears us!’
Whether the Prime Minister, inside meeting US Vice-President Kamala Harris, did hear them was unclear. But one senior political leader certainly wasn’t heeding their calls.
A day earlier, Sir Keir Starmer had spoken at Chatham House to address the Hamas-Israel war. His speech was delivered against a backdrop of spiralling unrest within his party.
Members of Labour’s ruling NEC had accused Israel of ‘genocide’, dozens of MPs were demanding a full cessation of hostilities and Shadow Cabinet Ministers were said to be on the brink of resignation. As one MP told me: ‘Keir is coming under massive pressure. I think he’s going to have to shift position.’
Sir Keir Starmer delivered his speech at Chatham House to address the Hamas-Israel war against a backdrop of spiralling unrest within his party
Despite one MP telling me that the Labour leader was coming under ‘massive pressure’ and would have to shift position, he didn’t writes DAN HODGES
But he didn’t.
‘A ceasefire always freezes any conflict in the state where it currently lies,’ Starmer calmly explained to the assembled audience of international policy gurus and journalists.
‘And as we speak, that would leave Hamas with the infrastructure and the capability 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.’
The reaction from Starmer’s opponents on the Left was instant. Leading pro-Palestinian activist and Guardian columnist Owen Jones branded the speech ‘racism’ and condemned Starmer as ‘a war crimes apologist’. The Labour leaders of Burnley and Pendle councils in Lancashire issued a call for him to resign.
Starmer simply shrugged off the criticism.
‘People have misunderstood who he is,’ one ally explained to me. ‘Because of his background as Director of Public Prosecutions, he’s got a strong security focus.
‘Yeah, as a lawyer, he did stuff like representing kids’ rights to have a rave, but he isn’t going to let some liberal angst get in the way of protecting people from terrorism or extremism.’
Starmer’s stance hasn’t been completely unyielding. His unequivocal commitment at the start of the conflict – ‘I stand with Israel’ – has quietly been dropped. There is much greater emphasis on the need for a humanitarian pause and the plight of the Palestinians.
Significantly, he has opted not to discipline those members of his front bench who have deviated from the party line.
But the conflict in Gaza – and the mini-civil war developing within his party’s own ranks – has been the making of him.
It’s not so long ago that the leader of the Labour Party would have been out on the streets of Whitehall with the protesters. But the tone and tenor of Starmer’s interventions have been the most mature and prime ministerial of his leadership. They have also been among his most politically astute.
Had he begun chucking dissenters off his front bench, it might have created an unnecessary domino effect that could have destabilised his entire political operation. As it is, he has avoided creating martyrs, and called his critics’ bluff.
None of the predicted resignations have materialised. And those MPs who have been parading their pro-Palestinian credentials have shown that when it comes to the crunch, the plight of the residents of Gaza City and Jabalia come behind the lure of a red box and ministerial limo. Indeed, over the past week Starmer has managed to look more prime ministerial than the Prime Minister himself.
A police officer is seen restraining protesters outside Chatham House just as Starmer is walking back to his car
As Starmer was channelling his inner Iron lady, Sunak took it upon himself to channel his inner Nick Clegg
Sunak’s AI safety summit this week, during which he sat down with tech tycoon Elon Musk, seemed to be a case of him preparing for life after Downing Street
While Starmer was channelling his inner Iron Lady, Sunak took it upon himself to channel his inner Nick Clegg. As the Leader of the Opposition was focusing on the unfolding horrors in the Middle East, the Prime Minister sat down with tech tycoon Elon Musk to discuss the threat of killer robots taking over the world.
‘What’s your view on what we should be doing?’ Sunak eagerly asked Musk during a bizarre question and answer session during the Government’s Artificial Intelligence summit.
‘We need to mitigate the downside potential,’ Musk replied.
What voters in Red Wall constituencies made of all this – if they even noticed it at all – God only knows.
No 10 aides insisted that AI is an issue close to Sunak’s heart, and this was another example of him taking a long-term view of the challenges facing Britain.
But it seemed more to be a case of him preparing for life after Downing Street, and laying the groundwork for the Rishi Sunak Artificial Intelligence Foundation – Head Office Sunnyvale, California.
Indeed, there is something appropriate about Sunak’s fascination with high-tech, because he is increasingly starting to look less like a national leader and more like a national hologram.
Next weekend, Britain will gather to remember her war dead. Or most of the nation will, if they can manage to evade those protesters planning again to descend on London to intimidate the Jewish community, wave the banners of banned terror organisations and eulogise the Hamas killer paragliders.
Sunak regards this as a potential ‘desecration’ of our services of remembrance. We know this because – as is his way – he took to social media to express his anger at this ‘affront to the British public and the values we stand for’.
To gauge just how robustly he intends to stand against this potential disruption to our national day of commemoration, I asked officials what precisely the Government planned to do about the marches.
‘There’s not much we really can do,’ one told me. ‘We don’t actually have the power to ban them. If we get a direct request from the police, then the Home Secretary has the power to stop them. And if they did, she’d be sympathetically inclined. But we’ve not had any indication the police are considering an approach.’
So what are the actual prospects of our custodians of law and order stepping in to protect the sanctity of remembrance weekend?
Tens of thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators have taken to the streets each Saturday, despite a warning from home secretary Suella Braverman that chanting popular slogans may be a public order offence
Officials say that the Government doesn’t have the power to ban the protests, unless police submit a direct request for it to do so
Protesters gather in Trafalgar Square on Saturday. Yet another demonstration is planned next weekend, the same day as the Armistice Day commemoration
Well, I think I got a clue while outside Downing Street on Wednesday. As the demonstrators continued to issue their ‘wholly peaceful’ demands for the eradication of the state of Israel, the police finally decided to intercede.
Several officers came over, and politely but firmly explained that the crowd was now causing an obstruction and must move to the other side of the carriageway.
At which point the protesters – with equal politeness and firmness – ignored them.
There was a momentary stand-off. And then the police just shrugged, and ambled away.
This scenario seems to perfectly sum up where the country is this morning. With a virtual police force failing to enforce the basic laws of the land on the very doorstep of our increasingly virtual Prime Minister.
Sir Keir Starmer has his faults. But he showed some steel last week. And that is something Britain now desperately needs.