As far-right protesters rallied in London bellowing “England til I die” on Saturday, a familiar face was walking out in front.
Tommy Robinson was beaming as a throng of angry men headed towards Whitehall to “defend the Cenotaph” from those protesting over Palestine on Armistice Day, chanting: “We love you Tommy, we do.” He jumped in a taxi before the violence, but was accused of being instrumental in encouraging people to attend.
Since being reinstated on X, formerly known as Twitter, earlier this month, the English Defence League (EDL) founder has experienced a resurgence. Robinson, 40, whose real name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, claims in his latest profile that this is a “new era” for him.
Among those concerned about his return to the mainstream is Nick Lowles, the chief executive of the anti-fascist group, Hope Not Hate. He said: “The fact that all this has blown up around the Cenotaph and the pro-Palestine demos in the fortnight that he’s come back on to X, I think has obviously been significant,” he said.
“I think it just highlights how important banning hate figures on social media is, because even though they can go on to fringe platforms, it’s much more difficult to speak to people outside their bubble.”
Lowles, whose biography of Robinson, Tommy, was published last year, said Robinson was careful to appear moderate in his videos and had not been there when protesters clashed with police on Saturday, but he had set the scene for what happened next.
“He turns up, leads the crowd down Whitehall, and then leads a group up into Chinatown and then jumps in a taxi and goes away,” he said. “But he has lit the fuse. He’s wound people up.
“His videos are powerful. His email list is several hundreds of thousands people. He’d send out emails to the list with a video embedded in the email, saying we must take action, we must take to the streets. He winds people up. He’s the Pied Piper.”
After Robinson left, the group were met with riot police. Violent clashes broke out, with protesters chanting “you’re not English any more” at officers.
Responding to the Guardian, Robinson said he had told people to remain calm and respectful: “I was polite the entire time, I was calm. I was talking to the police pleasantly. And then when I finished my two minutes’ silence I left and went home, which is what I said I was coming to do.
“So I didn’t lead a crowd. I just left. If people decided to follow me, I didn’t ask anyone to follow me. I left at the first available opportunity, I got in a taxi and went home to see my children. So I didn’t lead a march. I didn’t instigate any trouble.”
Lowles believes Robinson’s resurgence comes at a particularly febrile time. “I do think this is a dangerous time because I think that clearly until 10 days ago, the football hooligan world were not interested in Israel-Palestine. And it’s only because of the rhetoric of the last 10 days, partly by the home secretary, partly by certain newspapers like the Mail … and partly by the likes of Tommy Robinson, suddenly, the mood has just changed and we’ve seen that in the past week. Suddenly now football hooligans … all over the country are getting angry, they’re waking up.”
The EDL officially disbanded in 2015, but its supporters remain active. Responding to Sunak’s statement condemning the “violent, wholly unacceptable scenes” from the group and others on X on Saturday night, Robinson said: “If you want the EDL back, Rishi, I could easily organise that for you.”
Robinson’s comeback is, however, likely to be short-lived. He lost a libel lawsuit in 2021 for slurs against a Syrian schoolboy who was filmed being attacked at school, and the attorney general’s office is considering taking legal action for contempt of court after a documentary repeating the libel was circulated.
Assuming it went to trial and he were convicted, it could mean that by early 2024 Robinson is back behind bars. Given his previous convictions – which include fraud, assault, stalking, using threatening behaviour and contempt of court – he could be looking at up to two years in prison.
Robinson said: “I am facing a contempt of court charge because the bent judiciary, which is what it is, has silenced me and a film was leaked.”
He is determined to rebrand himself as a beacon of tolerance. Smiling into a camera lens at Saturday’s march, Robinson draped an arm around a man he described as a Pakistani journalist. “Don’t believe what you read, don’t believe the mainstream,” he said. “We do have a problem with jihadists, we don’t have a problem with ordinary Muslims.”
Many will find this hard to believe from a man who once described the refugee crisis as “a Muslim invasion of Europe” and said Islam was “backward” and “fascist”.