Hundreds of thousands of people marched through London on Saturday to demand that voters have the final say on Brexit, as MPs convened for a crucial vote on Boris Johnson’s new deal.
The protesters snaked through the centre of the UK capital and on to Westminster where the prime minister hopes to win parliamentary backing for his Brexit deal, clearing the way for the UK’s departure from the EU on October 31. It is the first Saturday sitting of parliament since the 1982 Falklands conflict.
The march set off from Park Lane near Speakers’ Corner around midday, following a route through Mayfair and St James’s towards the finish at Parliament Square outside the House of Commons. By 2pm the square was packed with tens of thousands of people while the tail of the march was still several miles away. The atmosphere was cheerful but more subdued than the previous pro-referendum march.
Speakers on the stage in Parliament Square included shadow ministers John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, and actor Patrick Stewart. “Brexit will shape this country for decades to come,” Sir Patrick said. “But we were lied to by a Brexit elite.”
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said Mr Johnson’s deal is “even worse than Theresa May’s deal”. “This is not a game . . . this is about future generations”.
Estimating the size of protests in major cities is notoriously difficult but the People’s Vote campaign said 1m people took part. The all-time record for a UK protest was the 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War, which was claimed to be close to 2m.
Allan Carruthers, a retired civil servant who described himself as an inveterate remainer and attending for his grandchildren, said: “It couldn’t be at a more critical point,” nodding to the palace of Westminster 100m away. “A second referendum is the only way to save our sanity.”
“A vote on the new deal is the only fair way,” said Alison Lydon, who works for a children’s mental health charity. The twenty-something lives in London but was joined by several relatives who had travelled to the capital from Cheshire draped in homemade Union Jack/EU flags. “You can’t take what people said three years ago,” she added, expressing concern about the length of time that had elapsed since the 2016 EU referendum.
Kavita Baldwin, an academic from Nottingham who voted Remain in 2016 said her preferred option would be a second referendum, pitting a remain option against the latest deal Brussels has agreed to. Short of that she wants MPs to have more time to scrutinise the proposal and expressed concern that today’s process is being rushed.
“Our MPs should have longer than two hours to look at a 500-page document,” she said.
The parliamentary vote is set to be nail-bitingly close. Mr Johnson’s hopes of getting the withdrawal agreement approved were dealt a serious blow on Thursday, when Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party came out against the package. The Conservatives do not have a majority in the House, so the prime minister has to assemble a coalition of MPs to vote for his Brexit deal.
But before he can get to the crucial vote on his Brexit deal he must first overcome a new hurdle erected by Tory grandee Oliver Letwin and former cabinet ministers including Philip Hammond and David Gauke. The Letwin amendment, also backed by Labour, would defer full parliamentary approval of Mr Johnson’s deal until the relevant implementing legislation is passed. Mr Johnson would then have to write a letter to the EU seeking a Brexit delay.