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Euro 2020: Boris Johnson had a simple option over stance on England team taking the knee – but has carelessly stumbled into a row

Euro 2020: Boris Johnson had a simple option over stance on England team taking the knee – but has carelessly stumbled into a row

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It couldn’t have gone less to plan. On Sunday the prime minister was hoping to enjoy some reflected glory of England’s success.

Boris Johnson was looking forward to having drinks with the European champions in Downing Street. But rather than football coming home, it’s questions about him and his party over racism that have arrived on his doorstep.

Worse, his well-documented lukewarm response to the England team’s taking of the knee has been magnified by the racist abuse of black players that followed Sunday’s final.

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PM and Starmer clash over racism

Unflattering comparisons have been made between the leadership of the England football team and that of the country.

England players who knelt before games to protest against racism were booed by some England fans. At the time both the prime minister and home secretary refused to condemn the booing and Priti Patel dismissed taking the knee as “gesture politics”.

England player Tyrone Mings accused her of “stoking the fire” and Tory MPs such as Johnny Mercer and Steve Baker have warned their party they are on the wrong side of social change.

Albie Amankona, a co-founder of Conservatives Against Racism, For Equality, wrote to all Conservative MPs urging more understanding about what it means to take the knee.

He told me: “It’s regrettable that the booing was not condemned from the beginning. It would have been excellent if more of our leaders had taken more of a stand in the way that we saw Gareth Southgate take a stand… And I’d like to see more leadership like Gareth’s, coming from all sides of politics.”

The Tory party has the most ethnically diverse cabinet in British history, and there’s no doubt that many of them including Priti Patel, have experienced racism – but ever since the Black Lives Matter movement erupted after the murder of George Floyd in America many in the party struggled with it.

England's Jack Grealish and Kalvin Phillips take a knee before the international friendly match at Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough on Sunday June 6, 2021
Image:
England’s Jack Grealish and Kalvin Phillips take a knee before the international friendly match at Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough on Sunday June 6, 2021

Conservatives were opposed to some of the movement’s more left-wing messages such as defunding the police or taking down statues, such as the one of imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford.

While people of all walks of life might take the knee for a host of reasons, what got lost is that fundamentally it is a symbol of anti-racism. As no politician in Westminster is pro-racism – there’s no argument over whether it’s right or not to boo the England team for trying to face it down.

It would have been the simplest thing to state that no one should boo the English team for sending out an anti-racist message. But that’s not what Boris Johnson nor Priti Patel chose to do.

That alongside an MP refusing to watch the matches because of the pre-match ritual, and another messaging colleagues that Marcus Rashford should have spent more time focusing on football rather than campaigning to feed poor children, all added to the series of missteps.

There’s an argument that the Tories, even now, know what they are doing – sending subliminal messages to their supporters that “gesture politics” and political correctness has gone too far, and they are fighting the war against woke.

But even “woke” is becoming a Westminster bubble issue. The red wall conservative-minded swing voters who put Johnson in power are more liberal than many think. And, with the England team taking the knee it’s helped dispel fears that it is all part of a socialist plot.

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Starmer questions PM’s stance on racism

As one man in a workman’s pub in Manchester put it. “Either taking the knee works or it doesn’t work – but either way it doesn’t do anyone any harm.”

During PMQs today the prime minister was ridiculed by the leader of the opposition as a man who wears his football top over his shirt and tie.

And attacked him with the line “Boris Johnson’s Conservatives would rather condemn Marcus Rashford for feeding hungry children than those who boo England players for taking the knee.”

Johnson said he was taking action to force social media platforms to get hate off their sites. He also said that the party had made it “absolutely clear that no-one should boo the England team.” This statement would have been absolutely clearer still if he’d added “for taking the knee.” But he didn’t.

It was bad enough when the government had to U-turn over Rashford’s free school meal campaign – even more careless to stumble into an argument that appears to pit them against the entire England football team over racism.

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