LONDON – Tens of Thousands of people opposed to Britain delaying its departure from the European Union marched through central London on Friday as the Tory government scrambled to salvage its Brexit plan.
On the day that Britain was originally meant to be leaving the EU, large groups gathered in bright sunshine outside parliament waving Union Jack flags and chanting, “Out means out” and “Bye, Bye EU”. Many held signs accusing Prime Minister Theresa May of treachery.
Amid a heavy police presence, some blocked the road outside parliament, shouting “we will not be moved” and “what do we want? Brexit? When do we want it now? Now.”
Protesters led by Nigel Farage — the politician widely thought to have done more than anyone to spook Britain’s then government into agreeing to hold a referendum on membership of the bloc — were preparing to address the crowd later after lawmakers vote on a stripped-down version of the government’s twice-defeated Brexit divorce deal.
Farage, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, is due to speak at a “Brexit Betrayal” event as part of the culmination of a 435-kilometre, two-week march from Sunderland in northeastern England, to London.
“What should have been a celebration is in fact a day of betrayal,” Farage told Reuters. “There will be a lot of anger. I certainly have never known a time in my life when people have said such rude things about the political class, about the government.”
MPs were preparing to vote later on Friday on part of the withdrawal agreement that they have already rejected twice. If they reject it again, Britain has until April 12 to tell the EU what it wants to do, the bloc’s negotiator Michel Barnier said.
The options at that point include leaving without a deal or proposing an entirely new arrangement that could involve remaining in the EU for months or years while new terms are worked out.
The prospect of Britain leaving without a deal to smooth the withdrawal was not the EU’s preferred option, Barnier said, but it was becoming more likely.
As the three-year Brexit drama approaches its finale, it is still uncertain how, when or even if it will leave the EU. Supporters of Brexit fear it will be thwarted by a political elite that was broadly opposed to leaving.
Thousands of people gathered at Bishop’s Park on the bank of the River Thames, many carrying Union Jack flags or placards that read “Leave now” and “Honour the vote!” to march about six kilometres toward Parliament.
Among them was David Malindine, 63, a retired teacher, who was preparing to march through what he called the Remain capital of Britain.
“We need to remind the country that the majority of people voted Leave,” said Malindine. “This was the day we were supposed to leave, and Brexit has been betrayed.”
Far-right Leave activists were due to speak at a separate meeting being cast as “a make Brexit happen” rally in Whitehall near May’s office in Downing Street.
Many of the marchers predicted the political elite will be punished if it fails to fully sever ties with Brussels.
Andy Allan, 58, who was carrying a red and white St George’s flag, predicted that there could be unrest modelled on the “yellow vest” protests that have rocked Paris for the last few months if Britain fails to leave the EU.
“It is absolutely disgusting what is happening,” he said. “Be warned — this is just the beginning of a mass uprising if we get betrayed by the politicians.”
By Andrew MacAskill, Andrew R.C. Marshall