31 January 2024

MP defends ‘Pontius Pilate’ jibe aimed at Rishi Sunak over PMQs Gaza response

31 January 2024

An opposition MP has defended calling Rishi Sunak “Pontius Pilate” during exchanges over the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Independent Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) said he shouted the remark as the Prime Minister was “washing his hands” from answering points raised by Alba Party’s Neale Hanvey.

Conservative MP Richard Drax had complained in the Commons about the “extremely unpleasant” heckle heard during Prime Minister’s Questions and defended Mr Sunak’s response to the conflict.

Mr MacNeil’s jibe came just minutes after Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle pleaded with MPs to exercise “self-restraint” in debates.

Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor who presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion.

Mr MacNeil, who previously sat as an SNP MP, told the PA news agency: “It was myself who said it, the PM was washing his hands from answering the points raised by Neale Hanvey.”

During PMQs, Mr Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) said Mr Sunak had called him “naive” in November after he appealed to the Prime Minister to choose “de-escalation and peace over violence, death and destruction”.

He said: “So far, over 26,000 souls have perished in Gaza. In a powerful and moving open letter in Monday’s New York Times, the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council cited Deuteronomy, ‘I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse – choose life’, accusing President Biden of choosing death.

“If the Prime Minister won’t listen to me or the ICJ (International Court of Justice), will he listen to the Rabbinical Council or will he call them naive too?”

Mr Sunak replied: “I’ve been clear on multiple times that we’re deeply concerned about the impact of the fighting in Gaza on the civilian population.

“Too many people have lost their lives and there is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support in Gaza.

“I won’t go over all the debates we’ve had about the conditions that are necessary for an immediate pause leading to a sustainable ceasefire, but I can assure the House we’re doing everything we can to get more aid into the region as quickly as possible.”

Mr Drax, raising a point of order with Deputy Speaker Dame Eleanor Laing, initially claimed an SNP MP was responsible for the “Pontius Pilate” comment before withdrawing it after it was vehemently denied by SNP chief whip Owen Thompson.

South Dorset MP Mr Drax said: “That language is extremely unpleasant because Pontius Pilate washed his hands and handed Jesus across to a murderous death.

“That is not what the Prime Minister is doing, he has an impeccable record on this topic and is leading with great courage and conviction in a dispute, a war in Gaza that is indeed highly emotive.”

Dame Eleanor said: “It’s very sad if somebody made the comment which (Mr Drax) has described.”

She added: “I don’t care who made such a remark, it is wrong to try to whip up bad feeling in this House or anywhere else about the tragedy that is unfolding in Israel and Palestine.”

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