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Sunak accepts 'disrespectful' and 'offensive' pro-Palestine march will go ahead on Armistice Day after meeting Met chief
8 November 2023, 17:23 | Updated: 8 November 2023, 22:08
Rishi Sunak has accepted that a pro-Palestine protest planned for Armistice Day will go ahead, but slammed it as "disrespectful" and "offensive".
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Sunak and Sir Mark Rowley, the Met chief, met on Wednesday to ensure the force's approach to policing the planned protest is "robust".
The prime minister, who previously called for the protest to be cancelled, has confirmed that the march will go ahead on Saturday, but continued to slam it as "disrespectful".
Sunak accepted that "freedom is the right to protest", though said that the protest "offends our heartfelt gratitude to the memory of those who gave so much so that we may live in freedom and peace today".
Meanwhile, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the prime minister of "picking a fight" with Rowley ahead of their meeting.
"Remembrance events must be respected. Full stop," Starmer said.
"But the person the PM needs to hold accountable is his Home Secretary. Picking a fight with the police instead of working with them is cowardice.
"The Tories put party before country. Labour will deliver the change Britain needs."
Remembrance events must be respected. Full stop.— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) November 8, 2023
But the person the PM needs to hold accountable is his Home Secretary. Picking a fight with the police instead of working with them is cowardice.
The Tories put party before country. Labour will deliver the change Britain needs.
"This weekend people around the UK will come together in quiet reflection to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country. It is not hyperbole to say that we are the beneficiaries of an inheritance born of their sacrifice," Mr Sunak said in a statement after his meeting with Rowley.
“It is because that sacrifice is so immense, that Saturday’s planned protest is not just disrespectful but offends our heartfelt gratitude to the memory of those who gave so much so that we may live in freedom and peace today.
“But part of that 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."
He went on: "This afternoon I asked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, to come to Downing Street and provide reassurances that the police are taking every step necessary to safeguard Remembrance services, provide reassurance to those who wish to pay their respects across the country and keep the public safe from disorder this weekend.
“It’s welcome that the police have confirmed that the march will be away from the Cenotaph and they will ensure that the timings do not conflict with any Remembrance events.
"There remains the risk of those who seek to divide society using this weekend as a platform to do so. That is what I discussed with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in our meeting. The Commissioner has committed to keep the Met Police’s posture under constant review based on the latest intelligence about the nature of the protests.
“And finally, to our veterans and their families, I assure you that we will do everything it takes to protect this special weekend for you and our country, as we come together to reflect on those who protected our freedom.”
Sunak to hold Met Commissioner ‘accountable’ for giving go-ahead to Gaza rally
In a statement on Tuesday, before his meeting with Sunak, Rowley said: "The laws created by Parliament are clear. There is no absolute power to ban protest, therefore there will be a protest this weekend."
He added that use of the power to block moving protests is "incredibly rare" and must be reserved for cases where there is intelligence to suggest a "real threat" of serious disorder.
He said organisers of Saturday's rally have shown "complete willingness to stay away from the Cenotaph and Whitehall and have no intention of disrupting the nation's remembrance events".
"Should this change, we've been clear we will use powers and conditions available to us to protect locations and events of national importance at all costs."
The Met chief is likely to come under significant pressure to change his mind in the coming days, with Cabinet ministers stressing that discussions are ongoing.
Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer, who is Jewish, called for the force to keep the "very provocative" march "under review".
She told LBC on Wednesday morning: "I think that the police need to, and have said that they will, continue to look at intelligence and will impose conditions.
"And they've already set out where events will take place, but I think they should keep it under review."
The Met had urged march organisers to "urgently reconsider" the event on Saturday because of a growing risk of violence, but the pro-Palestinian coalition behind it have refused to call it off.
The force could request the power to ban the event under Section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986, but that would only apply if there was the threat of serious public disorder which could not be controlled by other measures.
The coalition of groups, which includes the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War and the Muslim Association of Britain, insisted they will press ahead with the demonstration calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
There are concerns that breakaway groups from the main march could look for trouble, while counter-demonstrations may add to policing difficulties.
Asked about a call to arms by groups of football hooligans to protect the Cenotaph, Ms Frazer urged them to refrain from "taking responsibility into their own hands", saying: "What I do not want to see is any escalation of violence across the board".
The planned route for the London march goes from Hyde Park - about a mile from the war memorial in Whitehall - to the US embassy in Vauxhall, south of the Thames.
The Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, which will be attended by the King and Queen and other members of the royal family, will take place on Saturday.
Remembrance Sunday events will take place at the Cenotaph in Westminster the following day.