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London’s Metropolitan Police has briefed its officers not to be influenced by pressure from politicians on Saturday at what is billed to be one of the biggest and potentially most combustible national protests in the UK capital since the Iraq war.
“There is no doubt this is going to be a very tense weekend,” Laurence Taylor, deputy assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police, said of the pro-Palestine march due to take place in central London on Saturday. “Narratives throughout the week clearly play into that.”
“I have briefed all of my commanders that the decisions we make are not to be influenced by external comments or pressure,” he added.
Taylor’s comments followed a controversial opinion piece written by home secretary Suella Braverman this week in which she claimed that the police were allowing a pro-Palestine “hate march” to go ahead on Saturday but were historically much tougher on rightwing protests.
A Downing Street investigation is under way into whether Braverman broke ministerial rules by publishing the article without full approval by the prime minister’s office. Number 10 said the piece “was not cleared”.
As the working week drew to a close, Braverman was holding on to her position by a thread, but prime minister Rishi Sunak has so far stayed his hand.
Government insiders said Sunak could reshuffle his ministerial team next week, possibly next Wednesday after prime minister’s question time in the House of Commons.
Saturday’s march, which coincides with Armistice Day, is expected to attract more people than any of the weekly demonstrations since the outbreak of the conflict in Gaza in early October, and will act as a litmus test of Braverman’s rhetoric.
Rightwing groups, including the English Defence League, have said they plan to attend the protest and could clash with some of the hundreds of thousands of people expected to attend.
A person close to the home secretary said she met with Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley on Friday afternoon and “emphasised her full backing for the police in what will be a complex and challenging situation and expressed confidence that any criminality will be dealt with robustly”.
Should violence erupt on Saturday, Braverman’s supporters would probably point to it as vindication of her attempts to place pressure on the police force to block the event. Her critics, meanwhile, will argue that her inflammatory comments helped exacerbate community tensions.
The Met police say more than 1,800 officers will be brought in on Saturday, making the march one of the most heavily policed in recent history. The force has arrested 188 people over incidents related to the Israel-Hamas war since October 7, 99 of them for activities during protests, two on charges of antisemitism.
Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which organised the protest march, said he was concerned that Braverman’s rhetoric was “increasing the risk [of] heavy-handed tactics from the police”.
“The police don’t operate in a vacuum and she has placed extraordinary pressure on them,” he said. “She knows exactly what she’s doing.”
Speculation over Braverman’s future comes at a crucial moment for the government. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will rule on the legality of the government’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda for their asylum applications.
A person close to the home secretary said that she was “pessimistic” about the ruling, but others in the party have been more upbeat. If the five justices rule against the government, Braverman is expected to call for the UK to exit the European Court on Human Rights.
Sunak will come under pressure from Conservative MPs to take an equally robust stance, but that would risk creating a further dividing line between the rightwing of the party and the more moderate One Nation Tories.
While a number of backbench Conservatives have criticised Braverman in recent days, few ministers have publicly denounced her comments. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was among five who distanced themselves, saying they would not use the same words as her to describe the pro-Palestine protests or refer to rough sleeping as a “lifestyle choice”, as she did in a social media post last week.
However, Michael Gove, secretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, declined to criticise the home secretary, saying in an interview with BBC radio that she does a “really tough job”, while Wales minister David Davies said on BBC’s Newsnight that he supported Braverman’s comment that the marches need to be “more respectful”.
One Conservative MP and former minister said that while Braverman had previously helped galvanise the right of the party, her rhetoric had “tipped well past useful” for the prime minister and was now threatening to make him look weak.
The person added that recent events spelt a death knell for her ambitions to become a party leader.