Anger and irreverence on the Brexit Day that wasn't


London (AFP)

It was billed by Brexiteers as "Independence Day" -- until political paralysis prompted a last-ditch delay to Britain's planned departure from the European Union.

Now people are set to mark March 29 -- the original Brexit day -- in all manner of ways, from protests outside parliament to tongue-in-cheek "leaving" parties.

Nearly three years after the divisive referendum that saw 52 percent of voters back leaving the EU, Britain's political institutions are deadlocked on the issue.

MPs are due to vote for a third time on an unpopular divorce deal on Friday -- just a matter of hours before Britain was due to leave the bloc at 11:00 pm (2300 GMT) after 46 years.

Prime Minister Theresa May kicked off a two-year countdown to exit on March 29, 2017, by triggering Article 50, the mechanism in EU law to leave the bloc.

But after the deal she painstakingly negotiated with the EU was twice rejected by MPs, May was reluctantly forced to delay Brexit beyond the much-heralded date.

That has left this Friday as an opportunity for each side -- and those in between -- to celebrate, rally in frustration or, perhaps, pause for thought about where Britain is today.

- 'End of the world' -

Dismayed eurosceptics vented their anger at the delay by massing outside parliament -- some after completing a two-week, 270-mile (435-kilometre) protest march from northeast England.

Hundreds of protesters walked through the London sunshine on Friday, blaring the Queen hit "I Want to Break Free" from loudspeakers and waving Union Jack flags as the march neared its destination.

"Whatever happens today with Brexit, things will never be the same in the UK," said 63-year-old artist Jan Bowman, adding she would have been carrying "fireworks", rather than a large banner, if Britain had really been leaving the EU on Friday.

Some were led to the majestic parliament building on the banks of River Thames by a Scottish pipe band.

"I'm not going to have my country taken over by a dictatorship," warned Terry Calladine.

"All the Labour and Conservative MPs are a bunch of frauds that need dragging out by their hair."

Small numbers of fiercely pro- and anti-Brexit demonstrators have kept up a constant presence in Westminster in recent months.

Ardent Brexiteers want Britain to leave the bloc now without any divorce deal in place, falling back on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

At the other end of the political spectrum, europhile London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a campaign bus on Friday emblazoned with the slogan "We are all Londoners".

It will tour neighbourhoods of the capital heavily populated by Europeans, highlighting government measures to mitigate the impact of Brexit on them.

"I think we can all agree that Brexit has been a complete and utter mess," the mayor told AFP.

Once the sun has set and the original 11:00 pm departure hour looms, Britons will have a chance to drown their sorrows or revel in renewed optimism about potentially stopping the process.

Bars and nightclubs in Remain-dominated London have laid on a host of Brexit-themed parties to celebrate the non-event.

A club in Bethnal Green in the capital's east has promised "bonkers Brexit cabaret" with appearances by characters including "Monster May".

"Fill out your visa applications (get a ticket) or you may be rejected at customs -- it is time to party like it is the end of the world, because let's be honest -- it might be," organisers warned.

- 'How to disagree well' -

Elsewhere, the Church of England has invited parishioners to "cafe-style meetings" over the weekend in a bid to forge some unity over that most British of things: a cup of tea.

Suitable Bible passages and newly-composed prayers will be chosen under the slogan "Together" to prompt the faithful -- whatever their views about leaving the EU -- to start conversations.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the world's Anglicans, said on Twitter on Wednesday that "reconciliation is... about finding out how to disagree well".

Meanwhile the Museum of London has been eagerly capturing this moment of uniquely heightened political division and drama in its permanent collection of oral histories.

Researchers on a traditional red double-decker bus have toured London's street to capture everyday people's "thoughts, views and opinions" on Brexit.