Keir Starmer accused Boris Johnson of lacking courage over his reluctance to condemn supporters who boo England players for taking the knee and told the PM his ‘leadership failure’ was undermining the team’s chances of success at Euro 2020.
The Labor leader, who believes Gareth Southgate showed Johnson how to be a leader, said no football fan should boo his team and argued that supporting players in their fight against racism and discrimination should not be a difficult choice for those in positions of responsibility. political power.
The row over the anti-racism move threatened to eclipse the tournament’s start and Starmer, who wants the taunts to end when England face Croatia in their opener at Wembley on Sunday, was unimpressed by Johnson’s blatant failure to take a stronger position after a section of fans booed when Southgate’s side took a knee before the recent friendlies against Austria and Romania at Riverside Stadium .
“The idea that you are booing the team is completely wrong,” Starmer said. “This is a response to what is an important collective decision of the team regarding the expression of its opposition to discrimination and racism. This is the decision they made and I think they are right.
“We have to support them all and all of us in a position to do that have to show leadership, like Gareth Southgate did, and have the courage to call him out and say it’s the wrong thing to do. The Prime Minister was wrong in refusing to call him. He didn’t have the courage to call him, he hedged his bets and in doing so, he undermined the team on the verge of this competition.
“He did not have the courage to side with the players. It is leadership. Compare and contrast him and Gareth Southgate on this. He didn’t have the courage to support the England squad as this competition approaches and he’s wrong about that and it’s a leadership failure.
On Monday, the prime minister’s official spokesperson appeared to offer his support to both sides of the debate after being asked about the boos ahead of the game against Romania. Johnson “fully respects the right of those who choose to demonstrate peacefully and to make their feelings known,” the spokesperson said, adding: “Taking the knee, in particular, the Prime Minister is more focused on action than on gestures ”.
On Friday, the prime minister’s spokesman moderated that view, saying he supported English players who were on their knees. “The Prime Minister respects the right of all to demonstrate peacefully and to express their feelings in the face of injustice. »
Asked if he condemns the boos from the fans, the No.10 said: “The PM has already spoken about his desire for everyone to support the national team. The Prime Minister would like everyone to line up behind the team to cheer them on – not boo. “
But the No.10 refused to correct Education Minister Gillian Keegan, who said taking the knee was “divisive.”
Starmer, who explained how the country came together when England hosted Euro 96, argued the comments raised doubts about Johnson’s character. “I think that tells you a lot about the prime minister and leadership,” he said. “The idea that we should oppose racism and discrimination is fundamentally correct. Rather than cover up like the Prime Minister did, without the courage to do it, we should come out and say they are right about it. These are fundamental principles.
Starmer has clearly expressed his patriotic pride and questioned Johnson’s credentials as a fan. “Unlike the Prime Minister, I am a real football fan,” he said. “I am a football fan who supports Arsenal and England. I want them both to win and for a fan not to boo their own team. It is a fundamental rule to be a fan.
England players have vowed to keep kneeling ahead of matches. Jordan Henderson, the vice-captain, said the boos showed racism remained an issue and Southgate said the backlash looked like an attack on black England players.
Southgate rejected the idea that kneeling is a political act and the manager has repeatedly used his position to raise awareness of the ills in society. The 50-year-old has been praised after expressing his passion for his role and responsibilities in a self-written article titled ‘Dear England’ for the Players’ Tribune this week.
“I thought it was a fantastic Gareth Southgate play,” Starmer said. “It is a testament to the pride I have for the England football team. Every time I see England play I am proud. That’s why I’m going to watch them play and I desperately want them to succeed.
“I would encourage the Prime Minister to read this article from Gareth Southgate if he hasn’t and really has the courage to say that the right thing to do is support the team when we have a chance to do well . All of these players are very proud of their country and in that sense they are in the same position as the fans.
England have a diverse squad and have connected with most of the fans. Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling has been a powerful voice against racism and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford forced the government to turn back on free school meals last year.
“Rashford and Sterling were shining examples of leadership under very difficult circumstances,” Starmer said. “The Prime Minister and political leaders have a choice. Do we support these players in what they represent or not? Do we support these players as they are with an English jersey? These are not difficult leadership questions.
Former Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown also urged Johnson to support England by kneeling and said he should avoid ‘culture wars’.
Starmer believes England can become European champions. “When I look at this team I see incredible talent, especially up front,” he said. “Bukayo Saka has been there from Arsenal. There are other brilliant young players. I hope the defense is strong enough. But it sounds like the kind of team that, with the right support, could go a long way. “
Starmer remembers being at Wembley for England’s quarter-finals and semi-finals at Euro 96. “My starting point is that no English fan hoots the England team at dawn. ‘a major tournament on English soil. I was very proud when I looked at them the last time. It was amazing to be inside Wembley when England were playing.
“The spirit at Wembley at Euro 96 was amazing. The sense of football returning home, everyone got behind the team. The last time it ended in a disappointment and I was there, but the whole stadium was vibrating as one, not with a few dissidents. It is in this spirit that I want to enter these Euros.
England, who play all of their matches in Group D at Wembley, face Scotland and the Czech Republic after facing Croatia. “I don’t have tickets at the moment but I am open to any offer of tickets to England matches,” Starmer said. “For now, I have made arrangements to watch them. Now is the time to watch England. If tickets arrive, I’ll be there.