Boris Johnson was challenged by Sir Keir Starmer to explain why Priti Patel, a few Conservative MPs, and indeed his own spokesperson have all in recent weeks cast doubt on whether England football players should take the knee.
The Prime Minister had a choice. He could do the prudent thing, which was constantly to reiterate his admiration for the England football team, and his abhorrence of racism.
Or he could be madly imprudent, and admit that he and some of his colleagues might in the course of the Euros have changed their minds, abandoned their initial reservations about taking the knee and come to realise that far from indicating support for Marxism, such an act is a wholesome expression of what all decent people feel.
Johnson did the prudent thing. He admired the team and abhorred racism.
His critics accuse him of not telling the truth, but how gleefully they would have fallen on him if he had admitted that his ideas have changed, so that what he might once have regarded as acceptable he would now regard as intolerable.
Such a glimpse of the truth would have been taken by the media, including social media, as an admission of moral turpitude, and a tremendous victory for Sir Keir.
Not just this Prime Minister, but any Prime Minister, indeed any leading statesperson, is required to express conventional views, and condemned if by some accident he fails to do so.
Walter Bagehot explained, in his essay on The Character of Sir Robert Peel, how a young politician “acquires the creed of his era”:
“He assumes its belief as he assumes its costume. He imitates the respectable classes. He avoids an original opinion, like an outré coat; a new idea, like an unknown tie.”
Johnson is by temperament unrespectable, and continues to indicate his sympathy with the unrespectable classes by keeping his hair in a mess.
But that was today as far as it was safe for him to go. When he counter-attacked it was from a safely anti-racist perspective: the Home Secretary had “faced racism all her career of a kind” which Sir Keir had not experienced; the Labour Party had put out a leaflet in Batley and Spen which it was Sir Keir’s duty to disown.
Sir Keir attacked Johnson for “putting an England shirt on over a shirt and tie while not condemning those booing”.
Which was rather Bagehot’s point: Johnson tried to dress like an England fan, though being Johnson, he had the cheek to get it slightly wrong, and thereby attract more attention.