LONDON — Rishi Sunak vowed to hold the chief of the Metropolitan Police “accountable” after the London force gave the go-ahead to a controversial pro-Palestine protest scheduled for this weekend.
Met Commissioner Mark Rowley pulled out of a planned appearance at a Westminster think tank Wednesday and is instead meeting the U.K. prime minister to discuss the demonstration, which will coincide with Armistice Day in the U.K. on Saturday.
That’s a day before Remembrance Sunday commemorations for the country’s war dead take place in central London.
The protest has sparked a heated debate in the U.K. about the trade-offs between free speech and security amid the Israel-Hamas war. No.10 Downing Street denied Sunak was applying pressure to the police force.
The protest’s organizers — the Palestine Solidarity Campaign — have said they have “no intention of marching on or near Whitehall, in order not to disrupt events at the Cenotaph,” a key war memorial. Instead its planned route is from Hyde Park to the U.S. embassy.
But Sunak said Wednesday that he believed the march proposals were “disrespectful” and made clear he would be raising the matter with the London police boss.
The prime minister told reporters Wednesday: “This is a decision that the Metropolitan Police commissioner has made. He has said that he can ensure that we safeguard remembrance for the country this weekend as well as keep the public safe.
“Now, my job is to hold him accountable for that.”
Threshold ‘not met’
The Metropolitan Police Service is operationally independent of the British government. The Public Order Act allows Rowley to ask the British home secretary’s permission to ban or place conditions on protests.
Rowley said Tuesday night that the legal threshold to stop the march on security grounds “had not been met” and warned there must be “a real threat of serious disorder and no other way for police to manage the event.”
“Over recent weeks we’ve seen an escalation of violence and criminality by small groups attaching themselves to demonstrations, despite some key organizers working positively with us,” he said. “But at this time, the intelligence surrounding the potential for serious disorder this weekend does not meet the threshold to apply for a ban.”
Sunak’s comments saw him swiftly accused of leaning on the police force.
Labour’s former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell — who is attending the demonstration and has defied his own party’s line on the Gaza conflict — told BBC’s the World at One show that Sunak should not “politicize the police in this way — they’re trying to do their job.”
He argued that Sunak’s intervention puts Rowley “in a very difficult position,” adding: “The organizers are doing everything they can to ensure that it in no way intrudes upon the remembrance commemorations. I don’t think we can delay the mobilization of people calling for peace and a ceasefire.”
Speaking on Wednesday lunchtime, Sunak’s spokesperson rejected the suggestion his boss was applying pressure to the police chief.
“No, that’s part and parcel of how government and the Met operate,” he said of the meeting. “The Met are operationally independent. It’s the job of the prime minister and the government to hold them to account for their approach. So, that is what the prime minister will be doing.”
Bethany Dawson contributed reporting.