Starmer criticises PM over delay in condemning booing of England taking knee

Sir Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of a failure of leadership after England players were subjected to “absolutely appalling” racist abuse in the wake of their Euro 2020 final defeat.

The Labour leader criticised the Prime Minister for having “sat back” and delayed issuing criticism of the booing of the national team for taking the knee against racism in the tournament.

England stars Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were all targeted with racist abuse after they were unable to score in the penalty shoot-out against Italy on Sunday.

Mr Johnson said those responsible for the abuse “should be ashamed of themselves”, but Sir Keir said his words “ring hollow”.

“It’s absolutely appalling and it has to be called out in the strongest possible terms and condemned,” the Labour leader told reporters in Westminster.

“This is about leadership and I’m afraid the Prime Minister has failed the test of leadership because whatever he says today about racism, he had a simple choice at the beginning of this tournament in relation to the booing of those who were taking the knee.

“The Prime Minister failed to call that out and the actions and inactions of leaders have consequences so I’m afraid the Prime Minister’s words today ring hollow.”

Sir Keir told the Government to “get on with it” and bring forward its Online Safety Bill to protect people against bigotry on social media.

“Like all football fans, I stand with Rashford, Sancho and Saka today on this really important issue,” he added.

“This team personifies the very best of Britain, modern Britain, in all its diversity. They have shown us what it’s like to lead on and off the pitch, I’m afraid the Prime Minister hasn’t.

“The Prime Minister shouldn’t have sat back, he should’ve called out the booing, because if you boo players who are taking a stand against racism then you end up where we are today.”

Former Tory Party chairwoman Baroness Warsi also issued criticism, suggesting Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Government were guilty of “dog whistle” politics.

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“It’s time to stop the culture wars that are feeding division,” the Conservative peer tweeted. “Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations.”

Initially, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman declined to condemn individuals who booed England players, only going so far as urging them to be “respectful” in comments on June 7.

It was not until four days later that a No 10 spokesman toughened Downing Street’s response to say the Prime Minister wants fans to “cheer them on, not boo”.

The following week, Ms Patel chose not to condemn fans’ booing, saying it was a “choice for them”, as she criticised taking the knee as “gesture politics”.

Tory MP Lee Anderson pledged to boycott watching England’s games and said he dislikes “the taking the knee business”, arguing that it is associated with the Black Lives Matter political movement.

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On Monday, Mr Johnson tweeted: “This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.”

But Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Johnson and Ms Patel “gave licence to the racists who booed the England players and are now racially abusing England players”.

She said they “are like arsonists complaining about a fire they poured petrol on”, adding: “Total hypocrites.”

Former England player Gary Neville accused Mr Johnson of condoning the booing of players and suggested he had promoted racism by previously describing Muslim women as looking like “letterboxes”.

“The Prime Minister said it was OK for the population of this country to boo those players who were trying to promote equality and defend against racism,” Mr Neville told Sky News.

Downing Street rejected the criticism.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said: “I would utterly reject that claim. The Prime Minister set out this morning his response to some of the awful comments that we’ve seen.

“The Prime Minister was clear that he wanted to see everyone getting behind the team to cheer them on. He made that clear on the 11th, before England’s first game.”