Tory MP says party must change attitude towards taking the knee
Conservatives urgently need to change their attitudes towards people taking the knee, an influential Tory MP has warned amid an angry backlash against the government over the racist abuse of England footballers.
Steve Baker, the former minister and hard Brexit campaigner, broke cover on Tuesday to plead for his party to think again about dismissive attitudes towards the taking of the knee and calling for better understanding of the motives behind it.
Labour has been granted an urgent question in parliament on Wednesday on racism on social media in the wake of the abuse faced by players following the Euro 2020 final, and Baker warned: “This may be a decisive moment for our party.”
“Much as we can’t be associated with calls to defund the police, we urgently need to challenge our own attitude to people taking a knee,” Baker wrote in a message to MPs on the Conservatives Against Racism, For Equality group. “I fear we are in danger of misrepresenting our own heart for those who suffer injustice.”
His intervention came after the England footballer Tyrone Mings accused the home secretary, Priti Patel, of “stoking the fire” at the beginning of the tournament when she described players taking the knee as “gesture politics” and refused to condemn booing by fans.
A No 10 reception to honour the Euro 2020 campaign is understood to be unlikely to proceed, with no plans yet in place to celebrate the team. Johnson’s spokesperson said on Tuesday that discussions were ongoing with the Football Association about the best way to honour the team, but refused to say if there would be an imminent meeting between them and the prime minister.
One source told the Guardian that Gareth Southgate’s squad had originally been due to be hosted by Boris Johnson at a reception in Downing Street on Monday. But a No 10 spokesperson said the FA had not wanted an immediate event if the team lost.
“The PM would have been delighted and honoured to host a reception for the England squad to mark their outstanding performance in the European championship,” the spokesperson said. “However, No 10 was informed prior to Sunday’s game that the FA’s preference was not for an immediate reception in the event England were to lose. We continue to discuss suitable ways for the PM to thank the squad and coaching staff for their heroic efforts throughout the tournament.”
Albie Amankona, a co-founder of Conservatives Against Racism, For Equality, wrote to all Conservative MPs on Tuesday night urging more compassion, and his letter was forwarded to the group by Baker.
“As a young man who is as proud of being a Conservative as he is of his African and English heritage, I have been disappointed at the way our side of the house has engaged with how our national football team decided to stand against racism by taking the knee,” Amankona wrote. “Too many of us have fundamentally misunderstood the gesture of taking the knee, and we have not listened when those who support the gesture have explained why.”
Amankona said his sister had been in central London and “felt threatened and unsafe at the racial nature of the reaction of some England fans to our defeat. I fear that the way some of us have spoken out against taking the knee laid the foundations for the actions of some England fans after the football game both on social media and in real life and I bitterly regret this.”
Concern is growing among some Conservative advisers and MPs that the strategy of pivoting towards the culture wars may be toxic for the party. One senior Tory MP called the situation “embarrassing” and highlighted the Conservative MP Lee Anderson who said he would not watch the team because they took the knee. “It was absolutely tragic, it’s a laughing stock,” they said.
Another senior Tory said: “I think there needs to be a serious realisation soon in government that people simply don’t care about the culture war crap. They care about the cost of living, NHS and crime. They don’t want to see us starting fights with Marcus Rashford.”
The former Conservative minister Johnny Mercer tweeted support for Mings after his criticism of Patel, saying: “The painful truth is that this guy is completely right.”
Mercer said more of his Conservative colleagues should speak out. “We have some great colleagues in the party who reflect this – I am in no way alone. But more must have the courage to speak up, instead of remaining silent in some weird attempt to curry favour.”
Writing for PoliticsHome, Mercer said: “As leaders do we not support them; do we not see their pain, do we not see their efforts in the bigger picture? That’s why the home secretary was wrong to side with those booing the players before matches, and why the prime minister was absolutely right to ask them to stop.”
Johnson summoned tech companies to Downing Street on Tuesday to ask them to hand over details of those who posted racist content online to the police.
His official spokesperson said Johnson would “reiterate the urgent need for action ahead of tougher laws coming into force in the online harms bill”, and said there was “no question that abuse was upsetting, unfair and must be stamped out”.
Asked whether No 10 agreed with a government source who said the perpetrators should have their details handed over so that they could be made an example of, they said: “Yes, we expect social media companies to do everything they can to identify these people.
“The police already have a range of powers to identify and pursue those who use anonymity to spread hatred, but we have committed to strengthening the criminal law in this area.”