Mon. Feb 26th, 2024

It is a moment for Rishi Sunak quite unlike any other he has had to face as prime minister.

Every eyeball in the Commons was focused on his statement.

He stood up and gave the grim roll call of British casualties and the missing since the Hamas raid on Israel over a week ago.

He listed British military assets being redeployed to the Middle East. There was new humanitarian funding for the Palestinians to the tune of £10m. It was a statement where he made an announcement about things that are in his control.

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A packed chamber. Attentive, sombre and in some cases emotional MPs. Everyone wanting answers.

Yet it is far from clear just how much the prime minister of Britain can do at a moment like this, when geopolitics could be tilting in a new, and possibly more dangerous, direction. Rishi Sunak may have more answers than most others – but he does not have all of them.

At times, the frustration was evident just by the change in his language.

When I saw Rishi Sunak in the morning, he was clear that a key British diplomatic aim was to reopen the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

With Britain leaning into regional efforts to secure this goal, he made it sound like it was realistic and within grasp. By the time he faced MPs, he indicated progress had clearly slowed.

MPs from all sides of the chamber wanted answers on what would happen in the likely ground campaign to come in Gaza.

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Sunak told MPs he was confident the prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want this to escalate beyond Hamas – hinting he did not want to engage with Hezbollah triggering conflict Iran.

But will this prove right in practice? He also said Britain had appealed to Israel to avoid civilian casualties, the day after his foreign secretary James Cleverly had talked about asking for “restraint” and “discipline”.

But will this happen? Does Britain make a material difference in this debate? Nobody is sure, yet the questions from MPs kept coming.

Sunak seemed to want to get through the day dodging a public discussion of what I understand to be a huge British effort that is under way to rescue the half dozen or so British hostages held by Hamas.

Having avoided the subject in his interview in the morning and the pre-prepared statement to MPs, he only talked about what was happening when asked directly by Labour MP Dawn Butler.

She pointed to the public gallery, where the relatives of hostages were watching, and asked the PM to speak to them.

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Only then did he reveal what the government is doing: engaging with regional partners – likely to refer to Qatar where Hamas’s political leadership is based – and pledged to use “all tools our disposable”.

At a guess, he did not volunteer this information initially because he did not want to create false hope for the families of hostages – since no-one including him knows what will happen to them. This whole area is almost completely out of his control, however hard the UK diplomatic machine is working on it.

Many bits of Whitehall machine are grinding in sync to a common goal to support the PM in this massive global crisis – but it just does not mean Rishi Sunak has many more answers than the rest of us, however many questions he is asked.

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