Keir Starmer accuses Boris Johnson of failure of leadership in anti-racism row

  • Labour leader says Southgate has shown how to be a leader
  • ‘Johnson didn’t have the courage to stand by the England team’

Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of a lack of courage over his reluctance to condemn fans who boo England’s players for taking the knee and has told the prime minister that his “failure of leadership” undermined the team’s chances of success at Euro 2020.

The Labour leader, who believes that Gareth Southgate has shown Johnson how to be a leader, said no football supporter should boo their team and argued that backing the players in their fight against racism and discrimination should not be a difficult choice for those in positions of political power.

The row over the anti-racism gesture has threatened to overshadow the start of the tournament and Starmer, who wants the jeers to stop when England face Croatia in their opening game at Wembley on Sunday, has been left unimpressed by Johnson’s conspicuous failure to take a stronger stance after a section of fans booed when Southgate’s side took the knee before recent friendlies against Austria and Romania at the Riverside Stadium.

“The idea you boo the team is completely wrong,” Starmer said. “This is a response to what is an important collective decision by the team about their expression of their opposition to discrimination and racism. That’s the decision they’ve taken and I think they’re right.

“All of us should support them and all of us in a position to do so should show leadership, as Gareth Southgate has done, and have the courage to call it out and say it’s the wrong thing to do. The prime minister was wrong when he refused to call it out. He didn’t have the guts to call it out, he hedged his bets and in doing so he undermined the team on the verge of this competition.

“He didn’t have the courage to side with the players. That is leadership. Compare and contrast him and Gareth Southgate on this. He didn’t have the courage to stand by the England team on the verge of this competition and he’s wrong about that and that’s a failure of leadership.”

On Monday the prime minister’s official spokesman appeared to offer support to both sides of the debate after being asked about the booing before the Romania game. Johnson “fully respects the right of those who choose to peacefully protest and make their feelings known”, the spokesman said, adding: “On taking the knee, specifically, the prime minister is more focused on action rather than gestures.”

Keir Starmer, ‘a football fan who supports Arsenal and England’, at Walsall last September.
Keir Starmer, ‘a football fan who supports Arsenal and England’, at Walsall last September. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

On Friday No 10 moderated that view. Asked if Johnson supports players taking the knee, his spokesperson said: “Yes. The PM respects the right of all people to peacefully protest and make their feeling known about injustices.”

Asked if he condemns fans booing, No 10 said: “The PM has spoken before about his desire for everybody to get behind the national team. The PM would like to see everyone getting behind the team to cheer them on – not boo.”

But No 10 refused to correct the education minister, Gillian Keegan, who said taking the knee was “divisive”.

Starmer, who spoke about how the country came together when England hosted Euro 96, argued that those comments raised doubts over Johnson’s character. “I think it tells you a lot about the prime minister and a lot about leadership,” he said. “The idea we should be opposed to racism and discrimination is fundamentally right. Rather than hedging as the prime minister did, without the courage to actually do it, we should come out and say they’re right about that. They’re fundamental principles.”

Starmer made his patriotic pride clear and questioned Johnson’s credentials as a fan. “Unlike the prime minister I’m a true football fan,” he said. “I’m a football fan who supports Arsenal and England. I want both of them to win and a fan doesn’t boo his or her own team. It’s a fundamental rule of being a fan.”

England’s players have vowed to continue taking the knee before games. Jordan Henderson, the vice-captain, has said the booing shows that racism remains a problem and Southgate said the negative reaction feels like an attack on England’s black players.

Southgate rejected the idea that taking the knee is a political act and the manager has repeatedly used his position to raise awareness of society’s ills. The 50-year-old was praised after expressing passion about his role and responsibility in a self-written article titled “Dear England” for the Players’ Tribune this week.

Scotland’s manager Steve Clarke announced his side would take the knee as a one-off gesture of solidarity with England when the two teams meet at Wembley next Friday. But Scotland intend to “stand up to racism” for their other two group games.

“I thought it was a fantastic piece by Gareth Southgate,” Starmer said. “It spoke to the pride I have in the England football team. Every time I see England play I have pride. That’s why I go and watch them play, and desperately want them to do well.

“I would encourage the prime minister to read that piece by Gareth Southgate if he hasn’t done so and actually have the courage to say the right thing to do is support the team when we’ve got a chance of doing well. All of those players have huge pride in their country and in that sense they’re in the same position as the fans.”

England have a diverse team and have connected with most of the fanbase. Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling has been a powerful anti-racism voice and Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United forward, forced the government into U-turns over free school meals last year.

“Rashford and Sterling have been shining examples of leadership in very difficult circumstances,” Starmer said. “The prime minister and those in political leadership have a choice. Do we back those players in what they are standing for or do we not? Do we back those players as they stand with an England shirt on? These are not difficult questions of leadership.”

The former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown also urged Johnson to support England taking the knee and said he should avoid “culture wars”.

Starmer believes England can become European champions. “When I look at that squad I see incredible talent, particularly up front,” he said. “Bukayo Saka’s in there from Arsenal. There are other brilliant young players. I hope the defence is strong enough. But this feels like the sort of squad that with the right backing could go a very long way.”

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Starmer remembered being at Wembley for England’s quarter-final and semi-final at Euro 96. “My starting point is no England fan boos the England team on the verge of a major tournament on English soil. I had huge pride when I watched them last time. It was incredible to be inside Wembley when England were playing.

“The spirit in Wembley at Euro 96 was incredible. The sense of football coming home, everybody got behind the team. Last time it ended in disappointment and I was there, but the whole stadium was rocking as one, not with some dissenters. That’s the spirit I want to go into these Euros with.”

England, who play all of their games in Group D at Wembley, face Scotland and the Czech Republic after playing Croatia. “I haven’t got tickets at the moment but I’m open to any offers to tickets for England games,” Starmer said. “At the moment I’ve made arrangements to watch them. The time is carved out to watch England. If tickets come up I’ll be there.”


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