Labour has gone on the attack against Boris Johnson over Conservative attempts to stir up “culture wars” around race, as the prime minister refused to express regret for remarks that have been blamed for fuelling abuse of England’s Euro 2020 football stars.
In fiery exchanges in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson announced plans for match bans for those posting racial abuse online, in an apparent attempted to shore up the Tory position in the wake of England centre-back Tyrone Mings’s scathing attack on Priti Patel for “stoking the fires” of racism.
But he resisted repeated demands to disown the home secretary’s dismissal of players taking the knee as “gesture politics” or to admit that he was wrong before the tournament not to condemn those who booed the anti-racism protest.
After both the prime minister and home secretary voiced outrage at online racial abuse directed at penalty-takers Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka following Sunday’s final against Italy, Sir Keir Starmer said it was clear that “the government has been trying to stoke a culture war and they have realised that they are on the wrong side”.
The Labour leader read out pre-tournament news reports showing the PM and Ms Patel refusing to condemn booing fans, and told MPs: “Far from giving racism the red card, the prime minister gave it the green light.”
Sir Keir’s broadside came as senior Tory backbencher Steve Baker warned the row over taking the knee should serve as a “wake-up call” that the party needed an urgent rethink of its attitudes.
One shadow cabinet minister told The Independent that the events of the past few days appeared to show the balance in the “culture wars” battle shifting, after Tories wielded arguments about taking the knee and statues to great effect to pull off a shock win in the Hartlepool by-election in May.
More recent by-elections in Chesham & Amersham and Batley & Spen had seen traditional Tory voters desert the party out of distaste at its rhetoric, the MP argued.
“In Hartlepool the Tories were sending round leaflets pointing out that Keir had taken the knee,” said the Labour frontbencher. “I don’t think they would do that again.
“No one believes that Raheem Sterling wants to bring down capitalism or defund the police. And our team was one of the most diverse you saw in the tournament.
“Now it doesn’t seem a good look to have suggested people boo them. Steve Baker’s seat is near Chesham & Amersham, I’m not surprised he is nervous as the voters are in a different place to the things the PM has been saying.”
Ms Patel came under fire for failing to turn up to a Commons debate called by Labour on the racial abuse faced by the England players, sending junior minister Victoria Atkins to answer questions in her place.
Atkins – who undermined her own praise of England manager Gareth Southgate by referring to him as the team’s “captain” – said her boss was instead hosting a “long-standing meeting with charities who are on the frontline of tackling violence against women and girls”.
But Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner challenged her on Twitter: “Why are you too scared to take responsibility for your actions and apologise for stoking up the racism they’ve faced in recent days?”
At prime minister’s questions earlier, Sir Keir taunted Mr Johnson over his appearance at Wembley with an England shirt over his work clothes – which the Labour leader branded “the worst kind of gesture politics” – as well as Tory MP Lee Anderson’s boycott of the national team’s most successful campaign in 55 years in protest at them taking the knee.
Mr Johnson denied he had been trying to engage in “culture wars”.
But Mr Starmer asked: “Why else would a Conservative MP boast that he’s not watching his own team? Why else would another Conservative MP say that Marcus Rashford spends too much time playing politics, when he’s actually trying to feed the children that the government won’t? And why does the prime minister refuse time and time again – even now – to condemn those who boo our players for standing up against racism?
“What is it that this England team symbolises that this Conservative Party is so afraid of?”
Ms Rayner called for the suspension of a Tory MP who interrupted Sir Keir’s questions with a heckle claiming Mings had only criticised Ms Patel because he was a Labour member.
Mr Johnson declined Mr Starmer’s call to express regret for comments about taking the knew, but told MPs: “I utterly condemn and abhor the racist outpourings that we saw on Sunday night.”
He claimed the government had “made it absolutely clear” that no one should boo the England team, and insisted that the whole of the Commons was “united” in admiration for them.
Downing Street later said that the extension of the football banning order regime to cover online racism would be implement through the upcoming Online Safety Bill following a rapid 12-week consultation with football authorities and social media companies.
The Premier League is understood to support the move, having agreed at its annual general meeting last month to extend league-wide any sanction imposed by a single club on a supporter for discriminatory or otherwise abusive behaviour.
Banning orders allow magistrates to prohibit individuals from attending all regulated matches in the UK if they are convicted of relevant offences for between three and 10 years, but do not currently cover online abuse.