A Government minister has said it is “highly unlikely” that Gavin Williamson was racist in mistaking footballer Marcus Rashford for rugby player Maro Itoje.
The Education Secretary said on Wednesday that he made a “genuine mistake” in an interview with the Evening Standard when he said he had virtually met Mr Rashford, who forced the Government into a U-turn on free school meals provision during the pandemic when he meant Mr Itoje.
The mistake sparked criticism from MPs who have accused the Education Secretary of being “clueless” and “not up to the job”, while others accused him of racism as both sportsmen are young, black men.
But asked on LBC whether Mr Williamson’s error was “through incompetence or racism”, care minister Helen Whately said: “Honestly, I don’t know.
“All I know is that Gavin has put out his explanation, and there’s really nothing more that I could say about it.”
Asked whether it could, therefore, be racism, Ms Whately said: “I can’t believe for a moment that he is (racist).
“I think that sounds highly unlikely.
“You’ve given me a false choice, you’re trying to put me in a trap to say it’s one thing or the other.”
She added: “I don’t accept the choice that you’ve offered me there; what I’ll say is Gavin has said what’s happened, there’s not a lot more I can say.”
On Wednesday, Mr Williamson 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.”
He added: “I have huge respect for both Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje, who run effective and inspiring campaigns.”
Asked by the Standard whether he had met Mr Rashford, the Cabinet minister told the paper: “We met over Zoom and he seemed incredibly engaged, compassionate and charming but then he had to shoot off.
“I didn’t want to be the one that was holding him back from his training.”
But his advisers later told the newspaper, before the story was published, that he had in fact met Mr Itoje.
Both Mr Rashford and Mr Itoje made light of the minister’s mix-up with jokes.
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.
“Gavin Williamson must be the most ignorant, clueless and incapable Education Secretary in the UK’s history.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Mr Rashford said: “Marcus’ consistent ask to those in power has been collaboration.
“More often than not this ask is rebuffed.
“Maro and Marcus are two incredibly successful young black men, but there is little more they have in common.”
It comes after rumours swirled in Westminster over the Education Secretary’s future amid speculation of a Cabinet reshuffle on Thursday.
However reports suggested this would not go ahead, and Mr Williamson was due to virtually address the Universities UK’s (UUK) annual conference in Newcastle.