Wednesday briefing: The public order bill that will make dissent a lot more difficult

In today’s newsletter: Activism in England and Wales faces radical new rules. Here’s a primer on how these draconian restrictions will work – and why they’re so controversial

Good morning. A lot will change with Rishi Sunak as prime minister, he told the country yesterday: “Some mistakes were made … and I have been elected as leader of my party and your prime minister in part to fix them. And that work begins immediately.”

A few hours later, though, at least one change in his cabinet reshuffle took him straight back in line with Liz Truss: the return of Suella Braverman as home secretary. It’s less than a week since Braverman resigned after a breach of the ministerial code. Now, in a signal of the importance of her endorsement to Sunak, he has reappointed her immediately after stating his commitment to “integrity, professionalism and accountability” – and she’s back in time to see one of the most controversial policies pursued by her and her predecessor Priti Patel become law.

The legislation in question is the public order bill, which, remarkably enough, will create the prospect of people being sent to prison for owning a bike lock with dubious intent. (It’s also the subject that was under discussion when she made her now-infamous remarks about people who like tofu.) Last week, MPs passed the bill by 276 votes to 231, and next week it goes to the House of Lords.

Baffling as the bike lock thing sounds, it’s just one part of a bill which threatens vast new restrictions on the right to protest – supported in part by Keir Starmer. Today’s newsletter is a primer on how the new laws will work, why they’re so controversial and how protesters will seek to adapt to the new regime. Here are the headlines – and after the main piece, there’s a reading list on Sunak’s first day as prime minister.

Five big stories

  1. Rishi Sunak | The new prime minister said there were “difficult decisions to come” on his first day in No 10. In a reshuffle billed as returning experienced hands to the top jobs, Sunak also risked alienating backers of his leadership rival Penny Mordaunt by dashing her hopes of promotion.

  2. Liz Truss | Mark Fullbrook, Liz Truss’s chief of staff, pushed for many of her advisers to get honours despite her government only being in place for seven weeks, according to multiple sources. Truss is believed to have rebuffed the idea for her aides, who did not expect gongs for their short tenure in No 10.

  3. Cost of living | ONS figures have shown that the overall price of staple food items like pasta and tea increased by 17% in the year to September, with cooking oil soaring by 65%. These surges have disproportionately hit the poorest households in the country.

  4. Climate | Meat consumption should be reduced to the equivalent of about two burgers a week in the developed world, and public transport expanded about six times faster than its current rate, if the world is to avoid the worst ravages of the climate crisis, research has suggested.

  5. Kanye West | Adidas has ended its ‘Yeezy’ partnership with Kanye West, saying it “does not tolerate antisemitism” after he made repeated antisemitic remarks. Adidas’s decision comes after Balenciaga, Gap and JPMorgan Chase all cut ties with the rapper.

In depth: ‘The final erasure of the right to protest’

A protester is arrested at a Just Stop Oil demo in London last week.
A protester is arrested at a Just Stop Oil demo in London last week. Photograph: Vuk Valcic/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

The existing climate around protest in the UK is not exactly a picture of benevolent tolerance. After the death of the Queen, several people were arrested for criticising the institution of the monarchy, as we covered in First Edition; earlier this year, the police, crime, sentencing and courts act (PCSC) placed onerous new restrictions on protest – granting, among other measures, the ability for the police to ban demonstrations that they believe will be too noisy.

Draconian as the PCSC is, the promise of more austerity and the permanent urgency of the climate crisis given little reason to think that protest will abate. Climate activists, in particular, have deliberately sought to shock as a way to have their voices heard.

A recent soup incident involving Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – and a similar mashed potato attack on a Monet in Germany this week – provoked a remarkable level of disgust considering that both works were protected by glass and unharmed. However, they successfully got Just Stop Oil’s demand for a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects a hearing it would otherwise have been denied. Nimo Omer’s guide to Just Stop Oil’s strategy last week is here.

The public broadly supports direct action to highlight environmental concerns – but blocking roads has been more controversial, particularly when it is alleged that emergency services have been delayed. (That appears to have been seriously overplayed: Just Stop Oil strongly disputes claims its protests endanger lives in those situations, and yesterday OpenDemocracy reported that claims protesters delayed paramedics responding to a fatal crash have been dismissed as “farcical” by the Ambulance Service.)

Most of the provisions in the public order bill, which will apply in England and Wales, originally appeared as last-minute additions to the PCSC, without debate in the House of Commons – only to be stripped out by the House of Lords in a series of painful defeats for then-home secretary Priti Patel. Here’s what you need to know about what’s coming back and what it could mean.


What does the new bill say?

The government says the measures in the public order bill are needed to combat “a rise in criminal, disruptive and self-defeating guerrilla tactics, carried out by a selfish few in the name of protest”. In particular, they’re talking about protesters attaching themselves to parts of the public realm, and disrupting the ordinary functioning of daily life. (The government hasn’t caught up with the liquids-on-paintings tendency yet.) Here are the key provisions it includes:

New protest-related offences of “locking-on” – a protester attaching themselves to other people, objects or buildings to cause disruption – and “going equipped to lock-on”, as well as causing serious disruption by tunnelling, obstructing major transport works, and interfering with key national infrastructure. The penalties include unlimited fines and prison sentences of up to 12 months.

Serious disruption prevention orders, which will allow courts to bar an individual from associating with other activists, being in a specific place, having particular items like bike locks or superglue, or encouraging others to commit a protest-related offence. They may be enforced by the imposition of an electronic tag, and breaches could lead to six months in prison or an unlimited fine.

New stop and search powers for protest, which will allow police to intervene if they believe somebody has an object intended to help them to commit a protest-related offence like wilful obstruction of a highway – a category that could include the aforementioned bike locks but also posters or placards. Police will also be granted new powers to stop and search people attending a protest, even if they have no grounds for suspicion that they are carrying such an item, but think others in the area might be.

Anti-royalists protest with blank placards in Edinburgh.
Anti-royalists protest with blank placards in Edinburgh. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


Why is all of this so controversial?

There are many specific concerns among civil liberty advocates, but overarching all of them is a sense that in criminalising so many aspects of protest, the government is creating a surreal new situation: the only kinds of protest that are allowed are the ones which nobody notices. In an opinion piece published this morning, George Monbiot describes the bill as “the final erasure of the right to protest”.

The civil rights advocacy group Liberty calls the measures “a staggering escalation of the government’s clampdown on dissent”, and notes that people who have never been to a protest could be barred from attending future ones. Critics in the House of Lords have argued that explicitly targeting specific protest groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil is a dangerous way to make law. And the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights said that the new stop and search powers entail a “risk of arbitrary or discriminatory use” given past evidence of how people of colour are disproportionately targeted by the wider use of the power.

They also suggest that the bill risks “encouraging other nations who wish to crack down on peaceful protest” – an objection that feels particularly salient after news yesterday that the veteran human rights activist Peter Tatchell was stopped in Qatar for holding a one-man protest over the country’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people.

When explaining these objections, critics also point out that offenders need not actually cause disruption – but merely be suspected of intending to do so. They ask how police will distinguish between somebody who happens to be in the vicinity of a protest with a bike lock and those who wish to attach themselves to a railing. And, with some force, they note the wide range of previous protests for causes now widely viewed as unimpeachable which would have been caught up in the laws, as when the suffragettes chained themselves to the gallery in parliament.


What happens next?

Barring a sudden and deeply surprising reversal from Braverman, the bill is much more likely to pass the House of Lords this time around, since its provisions have now been debated in the House of Commons – one of the key objections from peers in the PCSC debate. That means they will almost certainly become law.

If so, that may deter many more casual sympathisers from taking part in protests – but the most committed advocates of causes like Just Stop Oil appear unlikely to be deterred. “Until they put the death sentence as the repercussions for what we’re doing, it won’t deter us,” spokesperson Cameron Ford told Damien Gayle last week. “Because the alternative to us not getting the change that we’re demanding is death.”

That may mean more protesters in prison. And it may also have the perverse result of drawing more attention to their cause.

What to read on Rishi Sunak’s first day

  • Who’s in and who’s out: Aletha Adu, Jessica Elgot and Aubrey Allegretti have a guide to the new cabinet.

  • The reshuffle “probably does not resemble the cabinet [Sunak] would have liked to form”, writes Aubrey Allegretti in this analysis - but it “has done the job insofar as it just slightly ruffles most MPs’ feathers rather than alienates a whole wing of the party”.

  • In Sunak’s safe seat of Richmond, there is a cautious welcome for his arrival, writes Mark Brown. “We could have worse,” says Jonathan Langhorn, a farmer. “We could have Liz Truss.”

  • Jessica Elgot reports on Labour’s strategy for dealing with Sunak: don’t let him paint himself as a “new broom”, and portray him “as a ‘weird guy’ attempting to present himself as slick and Starmer as a reliable ‘centrist dad’.”

  • There has been “a quite mind-boggling load of bollocks about new dawns and grownups and sensible people being back in charge”, writes Marina Hyde. “DO ME A FAVOUR.”

What else we’ve been reading

From left, Liz Truss; John Sauven; Alexandra Shulman; Vince Cable; and Jennie Formby.
What its really like to lose a high-level job … from left, Liz Truss; John Sauven; Alexandra Shulman; Vince Cable; and Jennie Formby. Composite: Composite: Tayfun Salcı/Shutterstock/Oli Scarff/Getty/Rex/Peter Nicholls/Reuters/Alamy
  • After Liz Truss’s humiliating exit from the top job in the country after 45 days, Michael Segalov asks what’s it like to a lose a high-level role, voluntarily or otherwise. Nimo

  • “If these walls could talk in this car, oh my God”: A fascinating profile from New York magazine (£) of the driving instructor loved by New York’s wealthiest teens. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • Simon Petherick was a civil servant in the 1980s in a small, now defunct department called the Central Office of Information. As a writer, he was tasked with setting out, clearly and objectively, what the government was doing. It was in this largely unknown corner of government that Petherick saw the start of the “post-truth” world we now live in. Nimo

  • David Squires’ always-excellent cartoon is this week about why some rival football fans still chant about Hillsborough at Liverpool matches. It’s extremely powerful. Archie

  • Jordan Michael Smith lays out the disturbing story of a Black man who was hung and burned by white people in rural Iowa two years ago. His family wants the law to acknowledge that race was a factor in this crime, but police and prosecutors won’t. The men involved have been charged and sentenced but for many people that doesn’t mean the case has been resolved. Nimo


Champions League | A stunning goal for Kai Havertz against RB Salzburg secured a 2-1 win for Chelsea and sent them into the knockout stages. Meanwhile, Manchester City were held to a 0-0 draw by Borussia Dortmund after Riyad Mahrez saw a penalty saved.

Cricket | England v Ireland is underway at the Twenty20 World Cup in Melbourne. Ireland are batting first and at the time of sending are 127-3. You can follow live coverage here.

Football | The Wrexham striker Paul Mullin has been banned from wearing a controversial pair of boots that featured the phrase “Fuck the Tories”. The club, owned by the Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, says it holds “a neutral position on many matters with a political dimension”.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 26 October 2022
Guardian front page, 26 October 2022 Photograph: Guardian

Wednesday’s Guardian print edition leads with “PM’s reshuffle gamble on first day in charge”. Under the headline “I’ll fix mistakes, vows Sunak as he brings in continuity cabinet”, the Times notes that “one-third of ministers” have kept their jobs. The i calls it “Sunak’s crisis cabinet” saying the prime minister has stacked his front benches with “political rivals” in a “bid to unify warring Tories”. The Mail splashes with “Leave it to me, Your Majesty!” and a full-page picture of the new prime minister and monarch.

The Telegraph quotes the prime minister on its front page saying “Mistakes were made. I’ll fix them” and that “difficult decisions” are needed. The Financial Times goes with “Sunak confronts ‘profound crisis’”. It notes that Jeremy Hunt has been “retained as chancellor in focus on stability and confidence”. The Mirror highlights the scale of the crisis facing the prime minister, with the headline “Meanwhile … in the real world” – saying people are in despair at the cost of living. The Sun says “PM brings back familiar faces” and “At least I got rid of the other Mogg, Larry” on top of a picture of Sunak and Downing Street’s resident cat. Today you can also see the major front pages here.

Today in Focus

Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni
Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

The rise of Europe’s far-right parties

Why are far-right parties becoming more influential in European politics? Jon Henley reports on the rise of the Brothers of Italy and the Sweden Democrats

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson on the fresh Tory team

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Candles as part of Diwali celebrations in Sydney, Australia.
Candles as part of Diwali celebrations in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Bahram Mia/The Guardian

As the Indian diaspora grows in Sydney, one part of the Australian city in particular has become a haven for the burgeoning community. Harris Park, a suburb dubbed “little India”, has become a place where Hindus and Sikhs gather, particularly during Diwali, when its streets come alive with residents and visitors, many in saris and sherwanis, enjoying food and music together. The five-day festival is also great for local businesses: one restaurant said its profits doubled. Manoj Menda, the owner of a popular restaurant, said that lighting all his candles was akin to “lighting his own little kingdom”.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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