The government’s anti-racism fight with the England football team might be the greatest own goal of all time

We’re well into day three of UK government vs England football team and there is no sign of any official intervening to stop Priti Patel, Boris Johnson and the rest of them from continually blasting the ball into their own net

Tory MP incorrectly refers to Gareth Southgate as England ‘captain’

Commiserations then to AS Adema of the Madagascan Football League, whose official, world record 149-0 victory over local rivals SO l’Emyrne looks set to be broken.

That match, in October 2002, is a notorious piece of football history, made when SO l’Emyrne’s players chose to spend the entire match deliberately scoring own goals in protest over what they considered to be poor refereeing decisions in a previous fixture.

But we’re well into day three of UK government vs England football team, specifically the anti-racism row entirely of the UK government’s own making, and there is no sign of any official intervening to stop Priti Patel, Boris Johnson and the rest of them from continually blasting the ball into their own net with the power and precision of a Bren light machine gun.

Arguably, the first goal was the most spectacular and that was a while ago. That was back at the start of the tournament, when Priti Patel was asked by a GB News reporter whether England fans were right to boo the England players for their anti-racism protest and she replied, “That’s a choice for them, quite frankly.”

We won’t go through the dreary arguments about taking the knee, whether you should, whether you shouldn’t, what the gesture means and what it doesn’t mean. But what you don’t require is more than two brain cells to see the difference between disagreeing with something and having the right to boo them. And you shouldn’t require more than three brain cells to see that, if you’re the home secretary, it’s very much your job to unequivocally condemn hooligan football supporters for booing an anti-racism protest.

But she couldn’t, and nor could Boris Johnson, until it was too late. Then there was the at first rather amusing protest of the very dim Tory MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, who decided he would publicly announce his intention to boycott the England football team over its take-the-knee protest. Then England lost, and several of the team’s players were racially abused online, and perhaps it wasn’t actually all that funny after all.

Perhaps the protest actually really meant something to the players, and perhaps they had a right to better treatment by their government. But then, don’t we all?

They deserved better than to have their gesture demeaned as “gesture politics” by their own prime minister. Of course it’s gesture politics. Most of politics is gesture politics. In September, Boris Johnson did PMQs with two ears of wheat pinned to his lapel in support of Back British Farming Day. He’s also been known to lay the odd poppy wreath at the cenotaph. Gestures matter. Politicians do gesture politics all the time.

If they won’t do the gesture it’s because they don’t back the cause. And it’s why, after days of online abuse, and the defacing of a mural in Manchester, the government is hopelessly on the wrong side of the argument.

Not merely because they’re too stupid not to back themselves into this impossible corner, though they are. Not because they don’t possess the truly minimal level of political dexterity to prevent it happening. But because they simply are on the wrong side of it. Because Boris Johnson has 30 years experience of writing racist journalism.

He cannot prevent himself making racist jokes, about Muslim women looking like letterboxes, and Congolese men breaking into “watermelon smiles”. These are not slips of the tongue. They are the full throated voice of the man. It is who he is.

On Wednesday lunchtime, Priti Patel was asked to come to the House of Commons to answer a question about the racist abuse on social media directed at England’s black players. She declined to do so, sending a woman called Victoria Atkins in her place. All she could do was make breathy platitudes about the “skill and talent” of the players before ending her platitudes with “a quote from the England captain Gareth Southgate”. Dear Ms Atkins. It’s not a crime not to like football, but it is very easy to look stupid when you pretend you do.

Next a Tory MP called Craig Whittaker, who if you happen to have heard of, it will only be because he recently said the spread of Covid was mainly down to ethnic minorities, decided to get involved. “The single biggest cause of divisiveness is the lack of tolerance, and the lack of respect from both sides of the argument equally,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if you choose to take the knee or not. What matters is that you have tolerance and respect equally for those that want to and for those that don’t want to.”

It’s hard to know what was going through his head at the time, not least as it is highly unlikely he knew himself. It seems somewhat unlikely he had worked out that here he was, telling his own home office minister, who was there in place of Priti Patel, that what matters is that you have tolerance and respect. That you don’t boo, in other words. That if someone chooses to boo somebody else’s act of protest, then that, is not “a choice for them, quite frankly”.

Whether it was Mr Whittaker’s intervention that officially broke the 149-0 record is not clear, not least as no one’s keeping the score, or the time, and this one will run for days and days and days yet.

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