Veterans warned not to hold counter demos as justice minister joins calls to cancel pro-Palestine march

The government’s veterans minister has warned former soldiers not to stage counter-protests to a pro-Palestine march planned for Armistice Day amid a fierce row over whether the event should go ahead.

Johnny Mercer has urged former military personnel not to stage counter-demonstrations, stressing the route of the march was not due to go near the Cenotaph.

It comes as the justice secretary joined calls for organisers to postpone protests after the Metropolitan Police said demonstrations over Remembrance weekend are “not appropriate”.

In a letter to Met commissioner Sir Mark Rowley, Mr Mercer said he had spent the weekend “dissuading various veterans groups from organising marches or protests”.

However, he urged police to protect veterans who were marking the armistice or Remembrance Sunday.

“I have particular concern towards our elderly veterans for whom travelling to London once a year is an important part of their Remembrance and have expressed genuine fears to me around their ability to travel to London, particularly through our rail stations, unmolested,” he said.

“Whilst wholly respecting the police’s operational independence, I ask that your organisation make full use of the powers at their disposal to ensure that these concerns do not materialise.”

His letter came after a 78-year-old poppy seller claimed he was punched at a rail station during a pro-Palestine rally in Edinburgh on Saturday. The alleged incident was described as “repulsive” by Downing Street.

Alex Chalk said advice from the Met to delay a march planned for Saturday was “wise” and should be “taken very seriously”.

“I think those recommendations should be adhered to. I think the organisers should give the greatest possible weight to that recommendation from the police and I think they should abide by it. Not because I say it, but because the police say it,” he told Times Radio.

“And I think that advice from the police should be taken very seriously and I would invite the protest leaders to do so.”

Mr Chalk said he acknowledged the right to protest was important, but maintained that police advice should be followed.

“It’s a matter for the police and the police came out yesterday and they, of course, have to weigh up a number of competing considerations,” he said, during another interview on BBC Radio 4.

“Of course, there is the right to protest, which is important, but also concerns about public safety. Now, they have been very clear that having weighed all that up, their strong request is that these marches don’t take place and we support the police in that. We think that it’s wise advice.”

But Mr Chalk declined to repeat Suella Braverman’s description of pro-Palestine demonstrations as “hate marches”.

Senior police officers have urged organisers to cancel demonstrations planned for the coming armistice weekend (PA)
Senior police officers have urged organisers to cancel demonstrations planned for the coming armistice weekend (PA)

He told Today: “There is no doubt there are elements on these marches that I’m afraid are espousing hate... but equally there will be those people who are there expressing their anguish at some of the untold suffering.”

His comments come after senior officers said they were concerned breakaway groups “intent on fuelling disorder” will commit crimes if the protest on 11 November goes ahead.

In a public appeal to organisers on Monday, deputy assistant commissioner Ade Adelekan said: “Our message to organisers is clear: please, we ask you to urgently reconsider. It is not appropriate to hold any protests in London this weekend.”

The calls to delay came amid growing political pressure on police to use their powers to request a banning order for the event, after Rishi Sunak said the protest would be an “affront to the British public”.

Ms Braverman, the home secretary, welcomed the Met’s statement. “The hate marchers need to understand that decent British people have had enough of these displays of thuggish intimidation and extremism,” she wrote on Twitter/X.

Organisers have so far defied the Met’s plea to postpone their march, which is planned to take place away from Whitehall and the Cenotaph and will start after the two-minute silence is observed. No protests are planned for Sunday, when the main Remembrance commemorations are due to take place.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), speaking for a coalition of organisers, said they will continue “peacefully marching, as planned”. The group said police had not provided “any evidence” to support their fears of breakout groups clashing on 11 November.

People at a rally in Trafalgar Square, London, last weekend during Stop the War coalition's call for a Palestine ceasefire (PA)
People at a rally in Trafalgar Square, London, last weekend during Stop the War coalition's call for a Palestine ceasefire (PA)

The organisers added: “We recognise the political pressure being placed on the police by the government and right-wing political groups. However, we emphasise that they had and have a responsibility to withstand that pressure and act to uphold democratic freedoms.”

Police chiefs have the power to ask Ms Braverman for a banning order if they believe the protests present a risk of serious public disorder. The Met has so far resisted calls to use the powers under Section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986, but said it is keeping possible use of the legislation “under constant review”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 last night, PSC director Ben Jamal insisted there were “no grounds” for a banning order. “It would be a serious threat to the right to protest and to freedom of expression if a march were to banned without overwhelming evidence of a significant threat to public disorder,” he said.

Amnesty International UK said it was “extremely concerned” over the political pressure on police to ban the protest.

Protesters during a pro-Palestine march organised by Palestine Solidarity Campaign in central London (PA)
Protesters during a pro-Palestine march organised by Palestine Solidarity Campaign in central London (PA)

The human rights charity’s chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said Ms Braverman’s characterisation of the demonstrations as “hate marches” was “a dystopian distortion of the truth”.

He added: “We urge the police not to bow to illegitimate pressure from the government and allow people to peacefully express their concerns at the rapidly escalating crisis in Gaza and Israel – this is the mark of a free and fair society.”

On Monday, the prime minister said police had the government’s “absolute and total backing” to clamp down on disruption.

Mr Sunak added: “Remembrance Day is a time for national reflection. It is a time when I know the whole country will come together to pay tribute to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe.”

Four police officers were attacked with fireworks and six people were arrested during last Saturday’s pro-Palestine protest after thousands gathered in Trafalgar Square. Demonstrators have been flocking to the capital for weekly protests over the Israel-Gaza conflict calling for a ceasefire since 7 October.