Boris Johnson has told England fans not to boo footballers taking the knee, after previously failing to criticise supporters who jeered the protest against racial injustice.
Number 10 said the prime minister wants the public to “cheer (the players) on, not boo” ahead of the Euro 2020 tournament, and he explicitly supported players who decide to take part in the protest.
It comes after the PM’s official spokesman previously declined to condemn fans who booed the players, only going so far as urging them to be “respectful”.
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, a Number 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.”
Last week England players were met with boos by some fans when taking the knee at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough, prior to the friendly matches against Austria and Romania.
Gareth Southgate’s side – who play their opening Euro 2020 match on Sunday – have insisted taking the knee is not a political gesture, saying they are doing it to reinforce the message that racism and discrimination will not be tolerated.
In an open letter to England fans in The Players’ Tribune, England manager Southgate said he has “a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players”.
He added: “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”
Earlier on Friday, former prime minister Gordon Brown told the government to support the England team’s decision to take the knee before matches and stop fighting culture wars over “unimportant” gestures.
Comedian David Baddiel, who famously released the England football anthem Three Lions with Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds, also accused Mr Johnson of “playing a culture war game”.
Scotland have confirmed they will not be taking the knee during Euro 2020 but have vowed to continue to take a stand against racism.
Wales have said they will continue to carry out the gesture before their matches.
A YouGov poll found more football fans in Europe – including those in England, Scotland and Wales – are supportive of players taking the knee than are against it.
In England, from a survey of 547 football fans, 54% said they back players and staff taking the knee to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Half of those people (27%) said they strongly support it, with the other half somewhat supporting it.
Euro 2020 begins tonight, with Turkey taking on Italy, after the tournament was delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Wales play Switzerland in their first match on Saturday, with England kicking off their campaign on Sunday against Croatia.
Scotland’s opening game is against the Czech Republic on Monday.