Boris Johnson rewrote history today, or at least tried to. Challenged over his refusal to condemn fans booing England players taking the knee, he insisted: “Nobody defends booing of the English side.” This is not true, as Keir Starmer pointed out this afternoon. On July 3rd, Johnson said on taking the knee: “I do not believe in gestures, I believe in substance.” Four days later, his spokesperson said Johnson was “more focused on action rather than gestures”. Less than a week later, this was updated to the feeble encouragement: “The PM wants to see everybody getting behind the team to cheer them on, not boo.” And as Starmer highlighted, Priti Patel explicitly defended the right of fans to boo, and on taking the knee said: “I just don’t support people participating in that type of gesture politics.”
Starmer went on racism and football for most of the session today, calling repeatedly for the PM to back England taking the knee. Johnson offered a full-throated defence of his Home Secretary, who has been the focus of much criticism since three players were racially abused following the England defeat. Patel has “faced racism and prejudice all her career”, Johnson said, and she has taken “practical steps” to combat racism. The Labour leader condemned that racism, but highlighted the tweet of English player Tyrone Mings who said Patel stoked racism early in the competition. Johnson revealed during PMQs that the government would change legislation to ensure people found guilty of perpetrating racist abuse online can be banned from matches – something that Labour has just called for (though this was not highlighted by Starmer).
The outpouring of racist abuse following the final, and the subsequent public outcry, has seen Starmer confront a culture-war issue head-on – and successfully – whereas he has previously stayed silent on such rows. He showed Johnson’s laughable claim today that he does not “want to engage a political culture war of any kind” to be false. As an avid football fan himself, this is ground on which Starmer feels comfortable. “Football’s a game – racism isn’t,” he said. “That’s why many of us have been involved in the charity Show Racism the Red Card for years. But far from giving racism the red card, the PM gave it the green light.” The PM was clearly uncomfortable defending his, and his minister’s, record. The question now will be whether Labour continues to fight back when Tories stoke the culture wars.
Johnson had a difficult session this afternoon, and not just on racism. He faced questions from backbenchers on his move to make the cut to overseas aid “indefinite“. And he gave a garbled response to the Labour leader on his government’s proposed amnesty for pre-1998 offences related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As Starmer highlighted before and during the session today, the proposal faces opposition from all sides. Johnson in turn said Northern Irish people “must move forward now” and went on to attack the last Labour government for allowing terrorists to “escape the full consequences of their crimes” – yet at the same time defended a statute of limitations for British troops and Provisional IRA members. Even on its own terms, his argument for the plan is perplexing.