The Education Secretary said he made a “genuine mistake” after saying he had met footballer Marcus Rashford online, when he had instead talked to rugby player Maro Itoje.
In an interview with the Evening Standard, Gavin Williamson said he believed he had met Rashford, who forced the Government into a U-turn on free school meals provision during the pandemic, on Zoom.
But he had actually met England rugby star Itoje who has campaigned for ministers to close the digital divide.
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.”
The mistake has sparked criticism from MPs who have accused the Education Secretary of being “clueless” and “not up to the job”.
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.”
Asked by the Standard whether he had met 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 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.