LONDON — Anti-Brexit protesters flooded into central London by the hundreds of thousands on Saturday, demanding that Britain’s Conservative-led government hold a new referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union.
The “People’s Vote March” snaked from Park Lane and other locations to converge on the UK Parliament, where the fate of Brexit will be decided in the coming weeks.
Marchers carried European Union flags and signs praising the longstanding ties between Britain and continental Europe. The protest drew people from across Britain who are determined to force Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to alter its march toward Brexit.
Police did not provide a crowd estimate. Independent legislator Chuka Umunna and others supporting a second Brexit referendum estimated the crowd at 1 million.
More than four million people endorsed an electronic petition this week in favor of revoking Article 50, the act that formally triggered the Brexit process.
The march comes as May, who opposes a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership, is easing away from plans to hold a third vote on her troubled Brexit withdrawal plan, which has been strongly rejected twice by Parliament.
Speakers including Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and opposition Labour deputy leader Tom Watson were expected to address the crowds at the mass rally.
“Brexit is a complete and utter mess,” Khan said on the eve of the event.
“I’ll be marching on Saturday with people from every part of our country, from every walk of life, to demand that the British people get the final say.”
The protest comes after EU leaders this week granted a delay to Brexit, prompting Prime Minister Theresa May to make a renewed bid to win MPs’ backing for her divorce deal.
In a letter to lawmakers on Friday night, May said she might not seek passage of her Brexit withdrawal plan in Parliament next week. The embattled leader said she would only bring her EU divorce plan back to Parliament if there seems to be enough backing for it to pass.
“If it appears that there is not sufficient support to bring the deal back next week, or the House rejects it again, we can ask for another extension before 12 April, but that will involve holding European Parliament elections,” she said.
May’s changing stance reflects the plan’s dismal chances in the House of Commons after two prior defeats.
She also says she would need the approval of House Speaker John Bercow to bring the plan back for a third time. Bercow has said a third vote would violate parliamentary rules against repeatedly voting on the same thing unless May’s Brexit divorce plan is altered.
Hosted by the People’s Vote pressure group, Saturday’s protest follows a similar demonstration in October that drew an estimated half a million people.
Organizers have arranged hundreds of buses and even chartered a train to bring protesters from all corners of the country to the capital.
Among those planning to attend: Stephen Goodall, a 96-year-old World War II veteran, who will travel 200 miles (300 kilometers) by train from southwest England, alongside four generations of his family including his great-granddaughter.
“I am an old man and the outcome won’t affect me, but it will affect my family and many people that I know for years to come,” he said in a statement released by organizers.
Meanwhile the main opposition Labour Party appears divided on the issue.
At its 2018 conference, it backed holding another poll as a last resort, while advocating staying in a customs union with the EU together with close alignment with its single market.
But some MPs are fierce advocates of putting it back to the people, while others representing Leave-supporting areas in central and northern England, are bitterly opposed.
In a sign of the splits, at least half a dozen Labour shadow ministers are set to join deputy leader Tom Watson at Saturday’s march, while the party itself asked activists instead to help campaign for local elections due on May 2.
Watson said he had now decided to campaign for a referendum “reluctantly” and would back May’s deal if it was also put to the people.
“It can only begin to bring the country back together again if we all have a final say and then live with the result,” he said.
“I trust the people I represent. And only they can sort this mess out.”