Rishi Sunak has backed a ban on what he condemned as “provocative and disrespectful” pro-Palestine marches due to be held in London on Armistice Day.
His dramatic intervention came just hours after the security minister sparked a ferocious row after he asked the Metropolitan Police and the Mayor of London to halt the demonstrations.
But Tom Tugendhat was accused of “posturing” by Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan, who said only government had the power to ban marches.
And march organisers accused ministers of “at worse an incitement to public disorder”.
The prime minister said there was a “clear and present risk that the Cenotaph and other war memorials could be desecrated” by the march next Saturday.
“That would be an affront to the British public and the values we stand for,” he warned.
He said the “right to remember, in peace and dignity, those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for those freedoms” had to be protected and revealed he had asked the Home Secretary Suella Braverman to support the Met Police “in doing everything necessary to protect the sanctity of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.”
Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day, held on November 11 every year, is a Saturday this year, with the traditional Remembrance Sunday services the next day. The Met have made clear there are no plans for marches on Remembrance Sunday.
A significant demonstration is expected on the Saturday of Armistice Day, however.
Met commissioner Sir Mark Rowley has promised to ensure any demonstrations will not interfere with Remembrance weekend events.
Pressed by the London Assembly on Thursday if he could “guarantee a plan to keep events separate in case of unplanned marches in Whitehall, he described it as “a major security event, from a policing perspective.”
People protest during a national march for Palestine organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in London
Lord Prem Sikka told The Independent Mr Sunak’s statement is a “dishonour to the memory of those who gave their lives”.
The Labour peer said Remembrance weekend is a time to celebrate the “enormous sacrifices” made by British and Commonwealth servicemen and women and civilians “for the preservation of our freedoms”.
“And that includes the right to dissent and the right to protest,” he added.
Lord Sikka said: “We have to remind ourselves that those who gave their lives for defence of those liberties came from many religious backgrounds, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and everybody else.
“If Rishi Sunak is curtailing those protests it is really a dishonour to the memory of all those who gave their lives.”
“Free speech means a right to dissent, to protest and to highlight the violation of freedoms. The right to protest is fundamental to living a good life.
“And what we have here is the state sponsored suppression of free speech. So it is nothing to do with taking any sides in the current conflict, it is simply remembering that those who gave their lives did so so that we could continue to dissent, protest and expand our liberties.”
Ben Jamal, director Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PCS), told The Independent: “The attempts to frame the planned national demonstration on November 11, part of a cycle of weekly marches calling for a ceasefire, as disrespectful to Remembrance Day commemorations is at best misinformed and at worse an incitement to public disorder. “
There were “no plans” to march near Whitehall or the Cenotaph, he said. “We are choosing a route designed to avoid those areas, in consultation with the Metropolitan Police. The march will also not begin until some significant time after the 2 minutes silence at 11am. This is a march calling for a ceasefire in order to stop the current slaughter in Gaza. To highlight this democratic action taking place on November 11, well away from Whitehall, as disrespectful is dangerous and disingenuous politicking that defames many hundreds of thousands of people who want the current violence to stop.”
Mr Khan accused ministers of “posturing”. He said: “If this security minister knew his brief, he would know the only person in the country that can ban marches is the Home Secretary – his colleague in cabinet. So rather than writing these public letters to me, rather than this posturing when he’s doing media – speak to the Home Secretary.”
Mr Khan said it was “incredibly important” that demonstrators understood the importance of Remembrance events, adding that the Met Police was speaking to protest organisers to “make sure they stay away from the Cenotaph”.
Earlier Mr Tugendhat announced he had written to the mayor of London, Westminster Council and the the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. He said that November 11 was not “just another day. It’s not just even a day of remembrance. Actually, it’s a day of grief.”
“And I think that’s why this is not an appropriate time,” he said. “This is not an appropriate venue for protest.”