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Rishi Sunak forced to deny Tory party has 'Islamophobic tendencies' as Lee Anderson storm grows

Rishi Sunak was on Monday forced to deny the Conservatives have a problem with Islamophobia as he spoke out for the first time on the Lee Anderson controversy.

The row over the former deputy chairman’s rant about Sadiq Khan intensified after Cabinet members refused to call the Ashfield MP out for racism or Islamophobia, with Transport Secretary Mark Harper keeping the door open to restoring the Commons whip if Mr Anderson apologises.

His inflammatory words about the London mayor came at the end of one of the nastiest weeks in Westminster in recent years, with Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s future thrown into doubt over his handling of a vote on the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza amid growing concerns for MPs’ safety.

After issuing a statement over the weekend that failed to mention anti-Muslim hatred or the fallout from Mr Anderson’s comments, the Prime Minister was asked this morning if the Conservative party has Islamophobic tendencies.

“No, of course it doesn’t,” Mr Sunak told BBC Radio York.

Asked repeatedly whether the remarks were Islamophobic, he said: “Well, I think the most important thing is that the words were wrong, they were ill-judged, they were unacceptable. And that’s what I believe and that’s why the whip has been suspended.”

Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Sunak “lacks the backbone” to call out Islamophobia. “I think this is straightforward. It’s Islamophobia and the Prime Minister should call it out for what it is,” the Labour leader said.

“The reason he won’t is because he is so weak. They are divided, chaotic and if they are re-elected we are going to have five more years of this.”

Asked what Mr Anderson needs to say to have the parliamentary whip restored, Mr Harper told Sky News: “I hope he will reflect on what he said and he will retract those comments and apologise… He’s contributed a lot in the past. I’d like to see him be able to contribute to the Conservative Party in the future.”

But there was no apology from the MP in a statement issued on Monday via GB News, which pays him £100,000 a year for his commentary. He said his words “may have been clumsy” but accused Mr Khan of “double standards for political benefit”.

Lee Anderson has received widespread criticism for his attack on Sadiq Khan (ES Composite)
Lee Anderson has received widespread criticism for his attack on Sadiq Khan (ES Composite)

Asked what he needs to say to have the parliamentary whip restored, Mr Harper told Sky News: “I hope he will reflect on what he said and he will retract those comments and apologise… He’s contributed a lot in the past. I’d like to see him be able to contribute to the Conservative Party in the future.”

Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch claimed last night that adopting a cross-party group’s definition of “Islamophobia” would create “a blasphemy law via the back door if adopted”, by outlawing legitimate criticism of religious extremism.

Tory peer Baroness Warsi hit back this morning on X/Twitter: “This is absolute nonsense Kemi and you know it.” She added: “The government has dragged its heels on any work to tackle this form of racism. The only structures and programs that still survive are what we put in place during a Cameron government over a decade ago.”

Muslim Association of Britain spokeswoman Yasmine Adam noted that the row had blown up just days after a surge in Islamophobic incidents was reported in Britain by the group Tell Mama, including attacks on women wearing Muslim dress, since the start of the Gaza conflict in October. It mirrors a surge in antisemitic incidents targeting British Jews since Israel launched its invasion following murderous attacks by the Hamas terror group.

She told LBC: “We’re talking just a few days after Tell Mama came out and said that Islamophobia was at a record high. So it’s concerning to hear how normalized Islamophobia has become. It’s even more concerning when we see it at the highest level of government and the highest level of the governing party.”

Tory chairman Richard Holden said Mr Anderson had been dealt with swiftly in contrast to Labour’s “delayed reaction to blatant racist and antisemitic comments” made by its former Commons candidate in Rochdale.