Sunak Blinks in Police Showdown Over Pro-Palestinian March

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed a pro-Palestinian march will take place in London on Armistice Day as planned, even as he continued to call the event “disrespectful” and said it could be used to sow division.

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Sunak’s climbdown followed a Downing Street meeting with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley on Wednesday afternoon. Hours earlier, the premier told reporters he would hold Rowley personally “accountable” if Saturday’s march went ahead and disrupted official events marking the end of World War I.

The political row over the event has been going on for days, prompting outrage in parts of the media including the right-leaning Daily Mail newspaper. Sunak himself said last week planning protests on Armistice Day was “provocative and disrespectful” and there was a “clear and present risk” the Cenotaph and other war memorials could be “desecrated.”

Rowley, however, has said there’s a balance to be struck between risks and the legal right to protest. The march would only be banned as a “last resort,” he said, and the police will do “everything it can to prevent disruption.”

Meanwhile Sunak’s Conservative government has faced criticism that its rhetoric has worked to ratchet up public concern about the protest, raising its profile and potentially leading to more tension. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has branded the protests — which have been held in London and other cities globally each Saturday since the Israel-Hamas war began — “hate marches.”

Organizers have made clear for days the route would avoid the Cenotaph and start later than official Armistice Day events. Supporters have also pointed out that it is typically Remembrance Sunday that is more observed in the UK.

In a briefing with reporters, Sunak’s spokesman Max Blain denied that the government is trying to fuel a culture war over the protest. But even some members of Sunak’s party fear that is what is happening, and that ministers are damaging community relations.

The fear is that by drawing more attention to it, rival groups may use the march as a justification to cause disruption.

On Wednesday, Cabinet minister Lucy Frazer urged football supporters coming to London over the weekend not to act as vigilantes. The Democratic Football Lads Alliance, which has been accused of Islamophobia, is reportedly planning a counter protest against the pro-Palestinian rally.

“Tone matters,” Tory Member of Parliament Richard Graham said on social media in reference to Braverman’s comments. “It’s our duty to calm not inflame: to reduce, not increase, tensions.”

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer accused Braverman of “picking a fight with the police instead of working with them,” branding her stance “cowardice.” Labour’s mayor in London, Sadiq Khan, said the government should be supporting police rather than “making their job more difficult.”

Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to attend the pro-Palestinian march. On Monday, the Metropolitan Police urged organizers to delay it. But Rowley made clear there is also a high bar for canceling it under laws protecting freedom of expression and the right to protest.

That makes it politically awkward for Sunak’s Tories, who typically criticize what they call a “cancel culture” that silences controversial voices. Sunak’s announcement on Wednesday tapped into that political sentiment, saying allowing the march would be a “test” of the freedom to protest.

“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,” Sunak said. “There remains the risk of those who seek to divide society using this weekend as a platform to do so.”

(Updates with context and comments from sixth paragraph.)

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