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Rishi Sunak has U-turned on his attempt to prevent Saturday’s Armistice Day Palestine March putting him at odds with the right-wing Conservative candidate to be Mayor of London.
In a major climbdown on Wednesday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would no longer be pushing Met Police boss Sir Mark Rowley to ban Saturday’s march held by anti-war protesters. There have been weekly protests in the capital in favour of a ceasefire in the conflict since Israel began responding to Hamas’ terrorist attacks a month ago.
Sunak forced Metropolitan Police Chief Mark Rowley to cancel a commitment and meet him on Wednesday afternoon, following Rowley’s assessment that the upcoming Armistice Day protest does not pose enough of a risk of serious public disorder to warrant the force banning the march.
Following the meeting, Sunak climbed down, issuing a statement affirming the right to protest. He said in a statement afterwards: “Part of [our] freedom is the right to peacefully protest. And the test of that freedom is whether our commitment to it can survive the discomfort and frustration of those who seek to use it, even if we disagree with them. We will meet that test and remain true to our principles.”
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But it puts him at loggerheads with his own Conservative mayoral candidate in the capital, Susan Hall AM, who still appears to be calling for a ban. On Monday night, Hall tweeted: “It is totally inappropriate to have these demonstrations this weekend. They should have been refused [permission] from the beginning.”
A source close to London Labour mayor Sadiq Khan told Byline Times: “It’s deeply concerning that someone aspiring to be Mayor of London appears to have no understanding of the law and seems to want to intervene in operational policing.”
Sadiq Khan was not invited to Sunak’s meeting with Met chief Sir Mark Rowley, No 10 and the Mayor’s office confirmed to Byline Times. The PM has not spoken to Sadiq Khan to discuss the Palestine protests. They have not spoken for many months, this newspaper understands. Sadiq Khan is effectively London’s police and crime commissioner who holds the force to account, meaning Sunak’s meeting with Sir Mark was viewed as an anti-devolution snub within City Hall.
Sunak’s climbdown contrasts with earlier comments from No 10, with the PM’s spokesman telling journalists just hours earlier that Saturday’s Palestine protest was “completely inappropriate, provocative and disrespectful”. Asked for clarity on a possible ban, the No 10 spokesman repeated: “What is not acceptable is, in our view, to take action which is deliberately provocative, which is disrespectful.”
The planned protest is scheduled for Armistice Day rather than the more ceremonially significant Remembrance Sunday. Organisers have made clear the march will start hours after the 11am Cenotaph ceremony and will steer clear of the area. The police have powers to ban marches when there is a threat to public order, but do not have the power to ban static protests, Byline Times understands.
But Downing Street has been talking up the threat of unrest. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister rejected assurances from organisers, saying there remains a strong possibility of individual acts of disruption. The PM’s spokesman denied claims the Government was trying to stoke a culture war, speaking to journalists.
Sunak sought further “clarity” from Met chief Sir Mark Rowley on the Metropolitan Police’s plan to prevent any overlap between the protest and the remembrance events and to address any instances of hate or violence. There is no apparent plan from the Government to amend legislation to force the march to be cancelled, Politico reported.
Downing Street has also rejected claims that it has been putting pressure on the police to ban Saturday’s march.
But figures including former Cabinet Minister Andrea Leadsom has been talking up concerns about disorder, echoed by conservative newspapers, questioning the capacity of the police to control potential outbreaks of hostility.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay also told BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday morning that pro-Palestinian demonstrators should choose a different day to protest.
But left-wing figures like former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have expressed confidence in organisers’ efforts to ensure the protest does not infringe upon the remembrance ceremonies.
Armistice Day commemorates the ceasefire of World War 1, which saw an agreement to end the fighting as a prelude to peace negotiations. It came into effect at 11am on 11 November 1918. Armistice is Latin for “to stand [down] arms.”
Labour Leader Keir Starmer also criticised the timing of the protest but the leader’s office has made clear organisers have a right to march.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman is slated for additional meetings with the Met Chief ahead of the weekend’s events. She is likely to push for a more hardline stance.
Labour frontbencher Imran Hussain became the first shadow minister to quit the Labour frontbench on Wednesday over Sir Keir Starmer’s stance of not demanding a full ceasefire in Gaza. There have been no further resignations.
ITV reported that Hussain was warned that his shadow ministerial position would be at risk if he chose to endorse left-winger Richard Burgon MP’s pro-ceasefire Early Day Motion which was relaunched for the current session of Parliament this week.
One of the more likely risks over the Gaza protests this weekend comes from far-right groups pledging to resist the Palestine march.
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