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Why does Rishi Sunak want to clamp down on protests?

<span>Organisers of pro-Palestinian marches say a false narrative is being created, but people have been arrested for showing or saying antisemitic slogans on the protests.</span><span>Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Organisers of pro-Palestinian marches say a false narrative is being created, but people have been arrested for showing or saying antisemitic slogans on the protests.Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images

Protests, notably over Gaza, are once again in the news, though now because of the political and police response, and particularly because of comments from Rishi Sunak on Wednesday.

What did the prime minister say?

In words released by No 10 after a meeting with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Sunak said there was “a growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule”.

In a speech later in the day to the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity focused on safety for the UK’s Jewish community, Sunak said people were using violent and intimidatory behaviour to try to “hijack the democratic process through force itself”.

Speaking to police chiefs, Sunak said he wanted a clampdown on protests outside parliament, outside parties’ offices and town halls, or other venues that might “cause alarm, harassment or distress”.

Downing Street said subsequently that Sunak was “responding to and reflecting the views of members of the public” when he said mob rule had taken over – but were somewhat vague when asked how he knew this was the public’s view.

What was he referring to?

While Sunak and his government have already introduced new anti-protest laws after civil disruption by groups such as Just Stop Oil, the trigger for these comments is months of demonstrations against the Israeli military operation in Gaza, where nearly 30,000 people have died so far.

While the protests have taken place around the country, the biggest and most regular have been in London, some close to parliament. There have been arrests on the protests, some for disorder, and others for people showing or saying antisemitic slogans.

Earlier this month the CST said there had been a huge surge in antisemitic incidents since the 7 October massacre by Hamas, with incidents beginning before Israel began its retaliatory action. The charity’s data showed a 589% increase compared with the same period a year before.

Ministers have also been concerned about threats to MPs over Gaza. Last week there was a renewed focus on the issue after the Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, amended a planned series of votes on a Gaza ceasefire amid worries about intimidation particularly towards Labour MPs.

How accurate is Sunak’s assessment?

The actual numbers of arrests on Gaza protests would not seem to bear out the idea of “mob rule”. For example, there were 12 arrests at a demonstration in London on 17 February from a crowd estimated at more than 200,000 people.

Metropolitan police data from October and the end of December last year showed that 153 people were arrested at a series of London marches, but only 36 of these were subsequently charged with an offence.

Some of the worst disorder came in November from far-right groups who staged a counterprotest to one Gaza march and had a series of clashes with police.

Some MPs and ministers argue, however, that such numbers only give part of the story. They say that regular crowds chanting pro-Palestine slogans and, at times, undertaking action such as barracking people going into branches of McDonald’s – the chain has faced calls for a boycott after its Israeli franchise gave free meals to Israeli military personnel – means many Jewish people now avoid central London at weekends.

Sunak’s idea of mob rule also relates to criticisms of Hoyle for changing the business of parliament as a response to threats.

What has the response to Sunak’s comments been?

Civil rights groups have argued that they are wildly disproportionate and risk making legitimate protest illegal.

Speaking to the BBC on Thursday morning, Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent in the Met, said such language was “not very helpful”, noting that his daughters had been on Gaza marches and thought that the protesters reflected a broad cross-section of people.

The organisers of pro-Palestinian marches have also argued that a false narrative is being created about the protests being dominated by Islamist extremists.

Lee Anderson, the former Tory deputy chair, lost the party whip at the weekend for arguing that Islamists had “got control” of the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, meaning he was not properly policing the marches.

Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, has argued separately that Islamists “are in charge” in the UK.