Is Gavin Williamson racist or incompetent? Helen Whately simply can’t decide

Helen Whately’s miserable morning all goes back to an interview Gavin Williamson gave, in which he appeared to confuse a black footballer, Marcus Rashford, with a black rugby player, Maro Itoje

Rupert Hawksley
Thursday 09 September 2021 16:33
Helen Whately ‘doesn’t know’ if Gavin Williamson is racist or incompetent

I’m certainly not the first person to point this out but we really are living through a time when events on the ground, shall we say, are far more ridiculous than anything a satirist would dare dream up. So allow me to start this piece with the verbatim transcript of a conversation that took place this morning between LBC’s Nick Ferrari and the minister for care Helen Whately.

Nick Ferrari: “Is [Gavin Williamson] racist or incompetent?”

Helen Whately: “Honestly, I don’t know.”

Ferrari: “So it could be racism?”

Whately: “I can’t believe for a moment that he is. I think that sounds highly unlikely.”

Ferrari: “So he’s incompetent then?”

Whately then goes on to say that this is a “false choice”, which of course it isn’t. What she means is that she doesn’t want to choose, which is not quite the same thing. You can’t really blame her. One imagines it is not all that fun to be asked whether your colleague is a) racist or b) incompetent. But since most of us aren’t in the Tory party, we will probably never know. These questions don’t tend to come up in other lines of work, do they? For example, I have never arrived in the office, been hurriedly ushered into a meeting room and asked if the bloke in accounts is racist or incompetent. Have you? It must be a politics thing.

Whately’s miserable morning all goes back to an interview Gavin Williamson gave to the Evening Standard in which he appeared to confuse a black footballer, Marcus Rashford, with a black rugby player, Maro Itoje. The education secretary was asked whether he had met Rashford to discuss his free school meals campaign. Yes, he had. Definitely. “We met over Zoom and he seemed incredibly engaged, compassionate and charming but then he had to shoot off,” explained Williamson. “I didn’t want to be the one that was holding him back from his training.” Some scrummaging, perhaps, or line-out practice.

Alas, Williamson was confused. Or incompetent. Or racist. For the man he had “met over Zoom” was not, in fact, Marcus Rashford but Maro Itoje. It doesn’t look great, does it? So Williamson’s advisers issued a hasty clarification and then wheeled out the minister to make another statement, which, once again, deserves to be printed in full: “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. We corrected this with the journalist before the publication of the story. I have huge respect for both Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje, who run effective and inspiring campaigns.”

Rashford and Itoje saw the funny side. “Due to recent speculation, I thought it was necessary to confirm that I am not Marcus Rashford,” Itoje tweeted. And for this Williamson should be forever grateful because whether or not he is racist, it would, I think, be possible to conclude, on balance, that confusing two prominent black sports stars is actually quite a racist thing to do. Or, hey, maybe it’s just incompetence.

And so we must return to where we started and Nick Ferrari’s question to Whately: “Is [Gavin Williamson] racist or incompetent?” Now, it’s not my job to answer that but what I will say is that the overwhelming evidence suggests that the education secretary is indeed incompetent. Highly so. I have a word limit but there was the exams algorithm fiasco; there was his idea to make schoolchildren sing a song with the lyrics, “Strong Britain, great nation”; there was the time he couldn’t remember his A-level results; the endless, maddening culture wars.

My point is that Whately could have taken the sting out of Nick Ferrari’s question by confidently stating the bleedin’ obvious. “Yes, my colleague Gavin Williamson is incompetent. There you go, Nick.” And to be honest, Williamson really wouldn’t have minded. He probably would have thought she was talking about Dominic Raab.

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