Boris Johnson’s care minister has said she “doesn’t know” if under-pressure education secretary Gavin Williamson is racist or incompetent.
The error has sparked criticism from MPs who have accused the education secretary of being “clueless” and “ignorant”.
Asked on LBC if Mr Williamson was either racist or incompetent, care minister Helen Whately said: “Honestly, I don’t know.”
When host Nick Ferrari asked again: “So it could be racism?” the minister replied: “I can’t believe for a moment that he is.”
The LBC host concluded: “So he’s incompetent then.” But the minister pushed back, saying: “It’s not necessarily one or the other. You’re trying to put me in a trap to say it’s one thing or the other.”
The controversy began after Mr Williamson told the Evening Standard he had met Mr Rashford, who forced the government into a U-turn on free school meals provision, during a Zoom session.
But he had actually met England rugby star Mr Itoje who has campaigned for ministers to close the digital divide.
The education said: “Towards the end of a wide-ranging interview in which I talked about both the laptops and school meals campaigns, I conflated the issues and made a genuine mistake.”
Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy said: “It is depressing that in 2021 one black man – who has reached the pinnacle of his sport and has given so much back to society – is confused so easily with another by the education secretary.”
The Labour MP added: “Gavin Williamson must be the most ignorant, clueless and incapable education secretary in the UK’s history.”
Mr Rashford and Mr Itoje have made light of the minister’s mix-up with jokes. The Manchester star tweeted: “Accent could have been a giveaway,” followed by a laughing emoji.
In a more pointed statement, a spokeswoman for Mr Rashford said: “Maro and Marcus are two incredibly successful young black men, but there is little more they have in common.”
In June last year, then health secretary Matt Hancock accidentally called Rashford “Daniel” during a Sky News interview.
Mr Williamson’s mistake came amid reports that Boris Johnson is considering replacing him at the next reshuffle.
“If rumours of an imminent reshuffle are true, this must surely be the final nail in the coffin for Gavin Williamson holding ministerial office ever again,” said Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper.
The PM’s press secretary said on Wednesday that there are no plans for a reshuffle, but that Mr Johnson will be working from Downing Street on Thursday.
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