The Tory peer and former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine has accused Boris Johnson of trying to “rub the noses of Remainers in their defeat”, after the prime minister announced events to commemorate the UK’s departure from the EU this coming Friday at 11pm.
Downing Street said that three million special 50p coins bearing the words “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” will enter shops, banks and restaurants from Friday with a further seven million coming into circulation by the end of the year. Union Jack flags will also line Parliament Square and the Mall on Friday and the public will see government buildings in Whitehall lit up in red, white and blue.
To add to the celebratory mood the government wants to encourage, “a commemorative light display” will be staged in Downing Street in the run-up to 11pm, the hour that the UK will officially end its 47 year membership of Europe’s club of nations. A countdown clock will be projected on to it from 10pm. Officials said the light display will “symbolise the strength and unity” of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom.
The prime minister said last night: “Next Friday marks an important moment in the history of our United Kingdom. No matter how you voted in 2016, it is the time to look ahead with confidence to the global, trailblazing country we will become over the next decade and heal past divisions. That is what I will be doing on 31 January and I urge everyone across the UK to do the same.”
But politicians who fought to remain in the EU said the events were deeply inappropriate. Heseltine told the Observer: “Brexit is the most divisive issue of modern times. Those of us who fought to remain did so sincerely in the interests of our country and subsequent generations who we believe should be influential at the heart of Europe.
“I think it is unwise of the government to rub our noses in it by celebrating our defeat at this hour, whilst talking about unifying the country.”
He said the only comfort was that plans to chime Big Ben to mark the moment the UK leaves had been dropped.
“At least we are spared the sound of Big Ben being chimed at our discomfort.” Adapting the quote from John Donne the Tory peer added: “Send not to inquire for whom the bells tolls. It tolls for thee.”
The Liberal Democrats’ acting leader, Ed Davey, accused Johnson of using public money for an inappropriate, divisive event. “The prime minister should be seeking to pull the country together, not gloat with an expensive party on the public purse,” he said.
The SNP leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, said: “It grieves me that we should be leaving the greatest postwar peace project ever created. That is not something we should be celebrating.”
Sometime during the night on Friday, the union flag will be quietly removed from outside the European Parliament buildings in Strasbourg and Brussels, and from the UK representation in Brussels, which will be renamed in due course.
Claude Moraes, who has served as a Labour MEP for more than 20 years and will attend the European Parliament for the last time on Thursday, said the government events to mark Brexit were wrong. “All this make me feels very uneasy. The country is still bruised and divided. The British thing to do would be to mark the occasion in a way that respects the views of both sides, and that recognises the national divide.”