Thousands of demonstrators descended on Manchester for the first day of the Conservative party conference, demanding a second Brexit referendum and an end to the Government’s austerity policies.
Proceeding through the city chanting “bollocks to Brexit”, the pro-EU rally – featuring songs led by a Boris Johnson lookalike riding an inflatable pony – was part of a “Stop Brexit” protest by thousands of Remain supporters.
A second, largely peaceful protest in the city, organised by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, also involved hundreds of demonstrators calling on Theresa May’s Conservatives to be kicked out of office as they waved placards and chanted the now-familiar: “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”.
It came as Greater Manchester Police drafted in 1,000 extra officers as part of a £2m operation to manage security around the venue of the Conservative conference. While many of the protestors have now dispersed, police will remain on patrol as 12,000 Tory delegates are expected to visit the conference centre in the coming days.
Speaking to The Independent, Sir Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader, described the anti-Brexit rally as a “peaceful” and “dignified” demonstration.
“I think we want the voice of all these people are heard,” he added. “I think it’s important we keep fighting. We accept the negotiations are taking place, but at the end of it we want the British people to have a say.”
He continued: ”We’re all very well aware the Tories are meeting in Manchester; there is a big gathering of people here from all parties – Labour MP, some Tories – who just want their voices to be heard.
“The main point I will be making is that we’re not citizens of nowhere as Boris Johnson and Theresa May think. We’re proud to be British and proud to be European.”
Sir Vince later told a gathering outside Manchester Cathedral that there was a “civil war” going on between Cabinet ministers, adding: “They are fundamentally divided, disunited, disorganised – and this is the government that is supposed to be negotiating for Britain.”
“It is a mess and, unfortunately, the negotiations are going to lead to a mess.”
John Turner, a 68-year-old retired professor, told The Independent he had travelled from Norwich with his wife to protest against Brexit. “They voted for something – they didn’t know what they were voting for. We want a proper vote,” he said, referring to a second referendum once the terms of the Brexit deal are known.
He said he believed if Brexit went ahead the country is “likely to end up in economic peril”, adding he was in Manchester on Sunday not for himself but for his children and grandchildren.
Jo Bell, a 37-year-old English tutor, travelled over six hours from Essex to attend the rally. “I think Brexit is a travesty against democracy,” she said, adding she felt some people had been denied a vote in last year’s historic referendum.
At the anti-austerity march, a stand-off between police and protestors close to the vicinity of the Conservative party conference ended peacefully after smoke bombs were thrown. Activists shouted, “Let us out!” after police refused to allow a van to join the march route because it did not have security clearance.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, called for a general strike on public sector pay to “bring the Tories down”, saying the party’s policies were “literally killing people”.
“David Cameron told us he has slayed the health and safety monster, but we now know they slayed men and women and children as they slept in their houses,” he said, referring to the tragedy earlier this year at Grenfell Tower in London
Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union boss Mick Cash said the “only way do that through that is through a general election”.
Chief Superintendent John O’Hare, who is leading the Greater Manchester Police operation for the conference, said up to 30,000 people took part in protests in the city centre.
“No arrests were made during the marches and this is a testament to those who attended and the organisers who took responsibility for the events and worked closely with us to ensure a safe and successful operation,” he said.
“There is still a major policing operation in place to ensure everyone coming into Manchester can do so in a safe and enjoyable manner, and take advantage of everything our city has to offer.”
The last time the Conservative’s held the conference in Manchester, in 2015, a number of arrests were made and at least one delegate was egged by an activist, while several were allegedly spat at. But in a letter to Conservative members, Ch Supt O’Hare added that as a result of feedback two years ago, “we have implemented a number of changes”.
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