The prime minister summoned the Met’s commissioner to Downing Street on Wednesday to face questions on how he plans to keep the public safe, amid fears the “disrespectful” demonstration in London would disrupt Remembrance commemorations.
But in a statement following his talks with Sir Mark Rowley, Mr Sunak conceded that the right to peacefully protest was among the freedoms that veterans had fought for.
He claimed that while Saturday’s planned pro-Palestine march “is not just disrespectful but offends our heartfelt gratitude” to the nation’s war dead, we will remain “true to our principles” – including the right to peacefully demonstrate.
Mr Sunak said: “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.
“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.”
The U-turn comes after the prime minister warned Sir Mark that he will hold him “accountable” for his decision to greenlight the march, forcing the commissioner to pull out of a planned appearance at a Westminster think tank to join him for emergency talks.
Sir Mark has so far resisted mounting pressure on the force from politicians, including Mr Sunak and Suella Braverman, to block the protest calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
The country’s top officer insists concerns over unrest do not meet the threshold for a banning order, which can only be obtained from the home secretary if there is a “real threat” of serious disorder.
Mr Sunak said he had asked Sir Mark at the meeting to provide reassurances that the police are “taking every step necessary” to protect Remembrance events and keep the public safe from disorder.
He added: “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.”
The prime minister’s apparent climbdown came after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Sunak of “cowardice” for “picking a fight” with the Met, writing on X: “Remembrance events must be respected. Full stop.
“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.”
Former Met assistant commissioner Neil Basu condemned the pressure put on by Mr Sunak and Ms Braverman during the saga – arguing we are “witnessing the end of operational independence of policing” in the UK.
Mr Basu told LBC that it would “go against the law” if the Sir Mark banned the march without the sufficient evidence, saying “no politician should be putting a chief constable in that place”.
“I mean, that would be an extraordinary thing for a commissioner to do, which is effectively go against the law, under political pressure,” the ex-assistant commissioner added.
The Met had previously appealed for march organisers to “urgently reconsider” the event, citing concerns a rally was “not appropriate” during Remembrance weekend, but the pro-Palestinian coalition behind it refused to call it off.
The coalition of groups, which includes the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Stop the War and the Muslim Association of Britain, published their route on Wednesday, which will take demonstrators from Hyde Park at midday – about a mile from the war memorial in Whitehall – to the US embassy in Vauxhall, south of the Thames.
Organisers accused the government of “playing politics” and “stoking up fears” after the prime minister waded in to the debate, but insisted they won’t be deflected by the “deeply irresponsible” comments.
🚨The route for this Saturday's Ceasefire Now March for Palestine has now been confirmed. 🇵🇸
It will be assembling on the east side of Park Lane at 12 noon, 11 November, and marching across Vauxhall Bridge to the US embassy in Nine Elms Lane.#CeasefireNOW #FreePalestine pic.twitter.com/ZktEEV23LD
— PSC (@PSCupdates) November 8, 2023
Mr Sunak’s intervention came as health secretary Steve Barclay insisted there should be “ongoing discussions” over Saturday’s march, which he described as “provocative”. His cabinet colleague Lucy Frazer, who is Jewish, also called for the Met to keep the “very provocative” march “under review”.
However Winston Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames, a former armed forces minister, defended the right to protest.
“They’re there to express a deeply held view. And I think it must be allowed to go ahead and I think it would be a great mistake to play politics with it,” he told LBC.
Meanwhile, fears continue that far right groups and counter-demonstrations could ramp up tensions or lead to clashes with pro-Palestine protesters.
In a video to his supporters on Wednesday, English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson called for others to join him in London on Saturday “to make sure that there is respect shown at our Cenotaph”.
He urged his supporters to behave with respect but added they should be “prepared to defend if they need to defend”.
A call to arms has also been issued by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, a right-wing organisation that uses football fan networks to spread Islamophobic hate, to “join us in standing shoulder to shoulder with our veterans that fought for our freedom”.