Gavin Williamson, education secretary, has admitted making a “genuine mistake” when he mixed up England footballer Marcus Rashford with the England rugby player Maro Itoje, who is also black.
The two sportsmen have campaigned on various child poverty issues, with Mr Rashford leading the successful free school meals charge, while Mr Itoje has been highlighting the need for children to have laptops to be able to keep up with their education.
The gaffe emerged when Mr Williamson told the Evening Standard that he had met with Mr Rashford over Zoom to discuss his concerns.
He said: “We met over Zoom and he seemed incredibly engaged, compassionate and charming but then he had to shoot off,” the education secretary said, adding: “I didn’t want to be the one that was holding him back from his training.”
However Mr Williamson’s team later clarifed that he had not met the footballer, but was actually referring to a meeting with Mr Itoje, who plays for England’s rugby team.
The gaffe has prompted criticism of Mr Williamson, who is already thought to be tipped for demotion in any upcoming reshuffle.
He later apologised, saying he had made a “genuine mistake”.
Mr Williamson said in a statement: “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.
“We corrected this with the journalist before publication of the story. I have huge respect for both Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje who run effective and inspiring campaigns.”
Mr Rashford’s spokesperson confirmed he had not met the education secretary on a Zoom call and that his requests to collaborate with those in power had often been rebuffed. “Maro and Marcus are two incredibly successful young black men, but there is little more they have in common,” they added.
Following the mistake, Mr Itoje joked about it on social media, saying he was “not Marcus Rashford”.
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…
Marcu… I mean Maro Itoje
— Maro Itoje (@maroitoje) September 8, 2021
Mr Rashford also joked that the different mens accents would have been a “giveaway”.