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Boris Johnson has told England fans not to boo the football team for taking the knee in protest against racial injustice after previously failing to criticise the scenes.
A No 10 spokesman said on Friday that the Prime Minister wants the public to “cheer them on, not boo” ahead of Euro 2020 starting and explicitly supported those who decide to take part in the protest.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman earlier this week declined to condemn those who booed players, only going so far as urging them to be “respectful”.
But Downing Street has now gone further to tell crowds not to jeer the national team after coming under pressure to take a firmer stance.
Asked if Mr Johnson backs players taking the knee, the No 10 spokesman said: “Yes. The Prime Minister respects the right of all people to peacefully protest and make their feelings known about injustices.
“The Prime Minister wants to see everybody getting behind the team to cheer them on, not boo.”
Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Johnson of “a failure of leadership” by failing to swiftly criticise the booing as the Labour leader backed the squad’s “important collective decision”.
“The idea you boo the team is completely wrong,” he told The Guardian in an interview that took place ahead of No 10 reinforcing its line.
“The Prime Minister was wrong when he refused to call it out. He didn’t have the guts to call it out, he hedged his bets and in doing so he undermined the team on the verge of this competition.”
The symbol of anti-racism solidarity gained attention in American football in 2016 as they protested against police brutality and racism in the US.
The act has since spread further and was adopted by football players in the UK partly to demonstrate that racism should not be tolerated in the sport.
But there have been incidents of some sections of the audience booing players as they take the knee before games, including before England’s friendly matches against Austria and Romania last week.
Despite now taking a firmer stance, Downing Street declined to criticise education minister Gillian Keegan for calling the act “divisive”.
Instead the No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister respects the right of all people to peacefully protest and make their feelings known about injustices.”
Tory MP Lee Anderson has said he will not watch England’s games at the Euros because of players’ protests.
Fellow Conservative Brendan Clarke-Smith also claimed fans are “sick and tired of being preached and spoken down to” and just want to see a game, “not to be lectured on morality”.
But Downing Street has come under pressure to support the team’s protest and condemn the booing.
David Baddiel, the comedian who released the Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home) song with Frank Skinner, accused Mr Johnson of “playing a culture war game”.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown urged Mr Johnson to “come out publicly and support the England football team and what they do”.
And the spokesman’s fresh remarks also came after the Sun printed a comment on its front page saying: “This is not the time for boos, only cheers.”
England manager Gareth Southgate said the players would continue with the protest and said he has “a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players”.