Artillery Row Sketch

Missing from the penalty spot

Boris Johnson fails the Mings test

Boris Johnson’s critics always agree that he’s a populist, a man with few principles who is adept at spotting an issue and getting out ahead of it to his own advantage. But is this really true?

There can be no more obvious bandwagon than the England football team playing at home in an international tournament. Songs have been written about such moments. All that a prime minister has to do is show up and cheer the boys on. And yet somehow he has made a mess of it.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Johnson was questioned about his views of the England team. Not something easy, like whether it’s a good idea to bring on substitutes just to take penalties, but the thornier question of whether he supported the team’s stance on racism.

Johnson’s problem is not so much that he doesn’t know the right answer to give but that his party doesn’t. There are Tory MPs who will happily expound upon the roots of the Black Lives Matter movement and its Marxist links, but whatever the merits of these arguments, the bottom line is that if you’re explaining on television why you’re not a racist, you’re very definitely losing.

Having started the summer with the view that loud arguments about race would suit it very nicely – the way that the Sewell report was released in March made that clear – his government finds itself rather wishing they would stop.

At the start of the session, Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, tried to pour oil on these waters. “It should be obvious that the Cabinet is as inclusive as the English football team,” he offered. More inclusive, if anything: Cabinet has two old Etonians, and the England team doesn’t even have one.

Keir Starmer, however, saw an opportunity. Had Johnson been wrong to dismiss the team’s practice of taking the knee as “gesture politics”, he asked?

How would the prime minister respond? Given his own enthusiasm for gesture politics, he could have claimed he’d meant it as a compliment. Instead he praised the squad and said the government would make sure that online racists were banned from attending football matches.

The Labour leader responded by reading out the various positions taken by Tory MPs, Priti Patel and Johnson’s office at the start of June on the not-actually-difficult question of “should English people boo England?” It says something about the chaos inside Number 10 that it took a week to work out the correct answer to this, which is, to be clear: “No, the British prime minister does not support people booing the England football team.”

But it says even more about the chaos inside the Conservative Party that even now, many of its MPs haven’t got there. As Starmer went through Johnson’s early positions, there was a shout of “quite right”. When he went on to read out the England defender Tyrone Mings’s attack on Patel, there were heckles. Again, whatever Tories may think of the merits of Mings’s position, white men in suits attacking black football stars who are complaining about racism is not a good look.

In 2002, Johnson was a lazy newspaper columnist reaching for the nearest joke to hand. Now he is the prime minister.

Johnson looked befuddled. “I want to reiterate my support, our support, our total support for our fantastic England team,” he began. “And I support them in the way that they show solidarity with their friends who’ve faced racism.” He launched into a defence of Patel, pointing out that she has faced racism herself. But by now the shouting from his own side was so loud that the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, interrupted him to silence Tory MPs. When he asked the prime minister if he wanted to resume, Johnson just waved his hand. It seemed a gesture of despair.

“What is it,” Starmer asked finally, “that this England team symbolises that this Conservative Party is so afraid of?”

Johnson flailed. He attacked the question. He tried to get a dig in at the SNP. He claimed to have stopped the European Super League. He started talking about vaccinations. He denied wanting a culture war. At this point it was probably true, but bullies generally say they didn’t want to fight after the battle has turned against them.

The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, took the obvious but nonetheless effective route of asking Johnson to apologise for his past writings. “You can take things out of context,” the prime minister replied, as though his Telegraph article saying the Queen loved the Commonwealth “because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” was an Old Testament passage about wearing mixed fibres.

Look at the “context” point from Johnson’s perspective. In 2002, he was a lazy newspaper columnist reaching for the nearest joke to hand. Now he is the prime minister. He understands the difference. Why can’t everyone else?

But that is the reason that the prime minister’s office flails around when confronted with simple questions about racism. At the back of the spokesman’s mind, a little voice wonders which piece from the Johnson archive might come back to bite him.

Doubtless there are Tory MPs who can explain why writing about “tribal leaders” of the Congo who “break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird” is entirely not-racist. The Sketch would gently advise them to keep it to themselves. If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

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