Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of “trying to start a culture war” only to now realise he is on the “wrong side”.
Speaking during PMQs on Wednesday, the Labour leader sharply attacked the prime minister for having previously criticised the act of taking the knee and for initially failing to condemn football fans who booed the England team for their anti-racism stance.
“The government has been trying to start a culture war,” Starmer said. “They have realised they are on the wrong side and now they hope that nobody has noticed.”
Starmer added: “I’m so proud of this young, diverse and humble team and everything that it represents. They’re the very best of modern Britain, everything that I know this country can be.”
Johnson told the Commons the England team “represent the very best of our country” and rejected Starmer’s allegation.
“I don’t want to engage in a political culture war of any kind,” the prime minister said.
“I repeat that I utterly condemn and abhor the racist outpourings that we saw on Sunday night.”
Starmer mocked the prime minister’s suggestion he did not want a culture war, telling Johnson: “Give me a break.
“Either the prime minister is with the England players in their stand against racism or he can defend his own record, those ministers and some of his MPs – but he can’t have it both ways.
It came after Johnson was warned by former minister the Conservative Party’s needs to change its attitude towards people taking the knee, amid the continuing fallout from the racist abuse of England’s black footballers.
Steve Baker said the controversy which erupted after the Euro 2020 final at Wembley should serve as a “wake-up call” to the party over how it is seen in the rest of the country.
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were subjected to a torrent racist abuse on social media after they failed to score in the penalty shoot-out against Italy on Sunday.
That in turn prompted an outpouring of support for the trio, with hundreds of fans gathering to leave messages at a mural of Rashford in Manchester after it was defaced by vandals.
Meanwhile, England player Tyrone Mings accused home secretary Priti Patel of having stoked the fires of racism when she previously dismissed the team’s action of taking the knee at the start of matches as “gesture politics”.
Baker drew back from criticising Patel but warned that Tories need to consider how their words are received when they address such issues.
“It is a wake-up call to the Conservative Party of just how powerful our words are when we navigate these issues,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We have to get alongside those players who are taking the knee and understand they are not saying defund the police, they are not anti-capitalist. What they are doing is saying ‘We suffer racism’.
“What I am saying to my colleagues is that we have to confront the reality of how we are sometimes heard, even by people on our own side.”
His comments came after another Conservative former minister, Johnny Mercer, said he thinks Mings is “completely right”.