A pattern of my ten years in the Commons was that Conservative and Labour MPs tended to be more supportive of Israel and the Palestinians respectively – though opinion in the latter case was more divided: the Tory benches contained strong pro-Palestine voices, such as Crispin Blunt and Sir Nicholas Soames. As it was on the backbenches, so it was on the front bench – and at the most senior level. As Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague criticised Israeli military action in Lebanon as “disproportionate” during 2006. But his balancing instincts were at odds with the committed support for Israel of George Osborne, Michael Gove – and, to some degree, with the attitude of David Cameron himself.
Now Hague is gone from the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister’s circle is consequently less conflicted. Furthermore, Philip Hammond, Hague’s replacement, lacks his seniority, isn’t part of Team Cameron and will be looking over his shoulder at Downing Street as he finds his way in his new post. The cautious Hammond is not the man to be caught deploying the D-word – which did for Hague’s relationship with the Israeli Government. Cameron was thus more free to follow his inclinations during his recent Commons statement on Israel and Gaza, in which he pinned the blame for the crisis unequivocally on Hamas – which, he said, was “triggered by [it] raining hundreds of rockets on Israeli cities, indiscriminately targeting civilians in contravention of all humanitarian law and norms”.
However, the view of Conservative MPs was more equivocal – when expressed at all. The statement was combined with one on Russia and Ukraine. Of the 41 Tory backbenchers who rose to question the Prime Minister, only eight broached the Gaza conflict (while only 13 of the 48 backbench Labour MPs who participated did not). This was a dog that did not bark in the night. That quiet is slowly being filled by criticism of Israel. Some of this is from expected quarters. For example, the Conservative Middle East Council has called on the Government to tell Israel that “the bombardment of Gaza and the subjugation of the Palestinian people must stop”.
Some of it, however, is not. Yesterday, Sir Peter Luff, a former Defence Minister, said that Israel’s “actions are becoming very difficult to justify”, adding that “it does need to understand the consequences of its approach to this particular conflict more clearly.” Margot James has written to Hammond asking that the Government rethinks “policy towards the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories”: she is described by the Jewish Chronicle as a “strong supporter of Israel”. James is Hague’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, but there is no reason to believe that her letter, which came into the hands of Channel 4 News, represents anything more or less than her own view.
Alistair Burt, the former Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the Middle East, has also pitched in. There are both short and long term reasons for these developments, which parallel those in British opinion more broadly – at least, according to Matthew Gould, our ambassador to Israel, and to some opinion polling (though the same evidence suggests that relatively few people have a firm and fixed view on the Israel-Palestinian conflict). The short-term reasons are bound up with what viewers are currently seeing on their screens - often from the BBC, which inevitably re-opens the debate about media bias on the subject generally and BBC bias in particular.
The long term reasons have more to do with the growth of Britain’s Muslim population, which will make up about eight per cent of the whole by 2030. Much of it is presently concentrated in safe Labour seats. But this is changing, as Muslims spread out, like other groups of minority voters, from the cities to the suburbs. One MP from a home counties seat on the fringes of Greater London told me yesterday that he has received over 50 e-mails about Israel and Gaza from constituents – not a large number compared to that generated by some other causes, but a sharp increase on those he received during Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
Reliable figures for the distribution of Muslim voters in relation to marginal seats are hard to come by, as is evidence that foreign policy or affairs are decisive for them when it comes to casting votes. But this demographic change is clearly having an impact. James referred to Muslim voters in her letter to Hammond. One Conservative MP in a Midlands marginal complained to me yesterday that “all the efforts I’ve put in with the Muslim community are being lost because of this”, that “the Government is completely behind the curve” and that “there is no guidance for MPs in my position from Number 10 or CCHQ”.
Expect more in the same vein as time passes, the Muslim population grows, the Far Left continues its romance with Britain’s Islamists – and the Israel/Palestine problem drags on, as it surely will do: part of Labour’s plan, as illustrated by Ed Miliband yesterday and now by Nick Clegg today, is to exploit this situation by caricaturing the Conservative leadership as unambiguous backers of Israel’s Government. That administration will necessarily be less concerned by the views of British voters than those of Israeli ones – who are emphatically supportive of Operation Protective Edge, which has already lasted longer than Operation Cast Lead, and isn’t ending any time soon.