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It was Wednesday, just after noon and, in an imposing building overlooking the Thames in Westminster, the questions on football and racism were coming thick and fast.
But the venue was not the House of Commons and the speaker was not the prime minister. In the fortified bowels of MI5’s Thames House HQ, director general (aka the ‘DG’) Ken McCallum was answering queries from the media, including yours truly.
Whereas PMQs thrives off the bearpit jeers and cheers, DGQs is an altogether more sober affair, befitting its annual rather than weekly schedule. Yet when McCallum was asked about the problems of online extremism and the impact on young black men in the national team, he sounded more eloquent than many politicians.
At almost exactly the same moment that Boris Johnson was squirming under Keir Starmer’s prosecutorial glare, the domestic spymaster was unambiguously praising the England football team for their conduct over the past few weeks.
And he explicitly compared his own behind-the-scenes team with the one that performed on Europe’s biggest stage last weekend. “As I watched the penalty shootout on Sunday night,” he said, “I was very aware that I’ve got experience, MI5 has got experience, of watching capable, brave young people of all races, giving their all for their country.”
He went on to say that racism was strongly associated with extreme right wing terror groups whose activity has in recent years become a daily, significant part of his agency’s work. And he clearly meant it when he declared: “I’m proud of many of the people in MI5 today, working to deal with the terrorist threat that is fuelled in important ways by toxic racism”.
Even the most determined culture warrior would find it difficult to argue that McCallum, the youngest DG in the agency’s history, is some kind of “woke” Marxist. The Security Service, just like the England football team, benefits from diversity in a very practical sense as well as a symbolic sense. Looking like the nation it serves is a necessity, not ‘PC gone mad’.
But the contrast between the ease with which McCallum spoke about race, and the discomfort of the PM on the same topic just a few hundred yards away, could not have been more stark.
As Starmer marshalled the evidence of senior ministers’ mixed messaging on booing players who ‘take the knee’, Johnson could tell his usual “vaccines-vaccillation-remoaner” distraction technique wouldn’t work.
With Priti Patel having said booing the team was “a choice”, with No10 having said the PM “fully respects” the right of those booing to “make their feelings known”, even the later U-turn was too late to use as a defence. The real problem was that Johnson resembled the wonky trolley of Dominic Cummings’ image.
Drawing a culture war dividing line only works if you don’t keep hopscotching over it yourself. Put another way, “wedge” issues (as the Americans call them) are a bit pointless if they end up giving the instigator a political wedgie (as we British would call it). If they noticed at all, the minority of voters who think booing is ok may have been simply been confused by the PM’s shifting stance.
He did have one concrete policy announcement in his back pocket, namely extending football ground banning orders to be triggered by online as well as offline offences. Yet even that welcome development was obscured by the bigger row over the gulf between the Tory party and the England team.
And when a Tory MP heckled that footballer Tyrone Mings was a “Labour party member” they managed to undermine rather than help the PM’s case (“I do not want to engage in a political culture war of any kind”). Aside from anything else, failing to praise working class black and white kids who go on to become self-made millionaires sounds a strangely un-Tory thing to do.
With key ministers attacking footballers for “gesture politics”, why would any player want to take part in the real gesture politics of visiting No.10 in future? If the whole booing issue and taking the knee issue had not been weaponised by some ministers, Johnson could even have said his own cabinet team mirrored the diversity of the England team and was stronger as a result.
Perhaps the most revealing remark of the week however came not in PMQs but in Tory backbencher Natalie Elphicke’s private message to colleagues: “They lost - would it be ungenerous to suggest Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics.”
Note that Elphicke didn’t say “we lost”, she said “they lost”. Despite her subsequent apology, that word “they” was possibly as damaging to the Tory brand as any explicit racist epithet could have been. It exposed a gap between some in her party and the national team in a brutal fashion, just when any normal politician would want to celebrate their achievement.
It’s that gap, which is implicitly also a gap between a party and the public, that worries some Conservatives dismayed by the culture war rhetoric. It’s also why any future visit to No.10 of the England team (to promote our World Cup bid, for example) is now freighted with tension. Maybe MI5 down the road could act as a neutral venue.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.