Gavin Williamson admits 'genuine mistake' for wrongly claiming to have met Marcus Rashford after speaking to Maro Itoje

Yorkshire-born Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has come under fire after wrongly claiming he had met Marcus Rashford - when in fact he had been on a Zoom call with rugby player Maro Itoje.

Marcus Rashford (left) and Maro Itoje (right).

During an interview with the Evening Standard, Mr Williamson was asked if he had ever met Marcus Rashford, who has called for an urgent review of free school meals.

Mr Williamson initially responded: “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.”

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But the report adds that Mr Williamson, who is originally from Scarborough, had made a mistake and he had never in fact met or spoken to Marcus Rashford.

Evening Standard reporter Susannah Butter, who conducted the interview, wrote: "Later Williamson’s team tell me he actually met the rugby player Maro Itoje, who campaigned to bridge the digital divide, not Rashford. Rashford’s spokesperson confirms that he has never had any direct communication with Williamson, although the minister did have a call with Itjoe about equal access to education during the pandemic."

Mr Williamson said today: “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.”

The mistake has sparked criticism from MPs who have accused the Education Secretary of being “clueless” and “not up to the job”.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

But Rashford and Itoje have made light of the minister’s mix-up with jokes.

Rashford tweeted: “Accent could have been a giveaway”, followed by a laughing emoji.

Meanwhile, Itoje said on Twitter: “Due to recent speculation I thought it was necessary to confirm that I am not Marcus Rashford… And whilst we are here my name is not Mario either!! Just a simple Maro Itoje will do… Much love, Marcu… I mean Maro Itoje.”

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 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.”

In June last year, then health secretary Matt Hancock accidentally called Rashford “Daniel” during a Sky News interview.

Rashford’s spokeswoman added: “Whether it’s Daniel Rashford or a Maro Itoje reference, the message remains the same: Put our children first.”

Last month, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Education Secretary should have been sacked “a long time ago” following heavy criticism over his performance in the role over the past year.

It came amid reports that Boris Johnson is considering replacing him at the next reshuffle.

Addressing the mix-up, Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said: “This is a shocking and embarrassing admission that shows Gavin Williamson is simply not up to the job.

“The Education Secretary has let down children, parents and teachers by failing to secure enough cash to catch up on lost learning during the pandemic.

“Now he has confused two black sporting heroes and failed to recognise Marcus Rashford, who has led the charge on fighting child poverty.

“If rumours of an imminent reshuffle are true, this must surely be the final nail in the coffin for Gavin Williamson holding ministerial office ever again.”

But during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Mr Johnson defended Mr Williamson after he was asked to promise that he was “up to the job”.

Mr Johnson responded: “I think the whole House will recognise that the Education Secretary has done a heroic job of dealing with a very difficult circumstance in which we have had to close schools during the pandemic.”

The Prime Minister’s press secretary said on Wednesday that there are no plans for a reshuffle, but that Mr Johnson will be working from Downing Street on Thursday.