The Middle East conflict has triggered a serious rift among Birmingham Tories, with a breakaway group insisting that the city council should not “meddle in foreign affairs” by discussing the Gaza crisis.
Three backbench Conservatives made their stand this week following a debate in which representatives from all political demanded an immediate ceasefire and called for a boycott of Israeli goods and services. Council leaders allowed the topic to be raised on the grounds that loss of life in Gaza was a matter of concern to Birmingham’s 150,000 Muslims.
A statement warning that war in the Middle East could act as a “recruiting sergeant” for extremists in Birmingham was signed by four representatives from the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative and Respect parties.
But Tory councillors Gareth Compton (Erdington), Philip Parkin (Sutton Trinity) and Peter Smallbone (Quinton) said the call for retaliation against Israel was a pointless gesture which the council had no power to deliver. The councillors said the decision to allow the discussion “reduced the council chamber to little more than a school debating society”.
They believed the council’s time would have been better served discussing how to keep streets clean and improve city schools.The three represent a significant proportion of the 49-strong Conservative group, with many members saying privately that the Gaza debate ought not to have taken place.
Conservative council leader Mike Whitby gave his backing for the topic to be raised after being warned by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners that Asian Muslim councillors would not take no for an answer.
At least six Tory councillors walked out at the start of the debate at Tuesday’s full council meeting. Afterwards, city officials said that only personal opinions were expressed and “do not represent a formal position of the council as whole”.
Coun Compton said: “We all care deeply about the situation in Gaza. However, Birmingham City Council has no power over what happens there. It’s not even as if we have the power to boycott anything or anyone, so the people campaigning for it were never going to achieve the result they wanted.”
Coun Smallbone said: “Birmingham City Council isn’t the Foreign Office. We shouldn’t be meddling in foreign affairs on the flimsy pretext of community cohesion – if anything, Tuesday’s debate was counter-productive. The interests of the people of Birmingham would be much better served if their councillors simply got on with the job they are elected to do – namely ensure that council services are delivered effectively.”
Aston Liberal Democrat councillor Ayoub Khan, who spoke in the debate, was disappointed by the Conservative stance. He said: “We live in a democratic society and people are entitled to voice their opinions. But what is happening in Gaza is very significant and raises passions among certain Birmingham communities. Any resonable-minded person would say that this is something that ought to be discussed.”