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Oliver Dowden says he does not believe Lee Anderson was 'intending' to be Islamophobic

 (PA Wire)
(PA Wire)

Lee Anderson would have kept the Tory whip if he had apologised for suggesting Sadiq Khan is controlled by “Islamists”, the Deputy Prime Minister said as he refused to be drawn on whether he views the comments as racist.

Oliver Dowden said he does not believe the former deputy Tory chairman was “intending” to be Islamophobic when he made the widely criticised remarks that led to his suspension from the party.

The senior Cabinet minister also defended former home secretary Suella Braverman, who recently claimed the UK is “sleepwalking into a ghettoised society” with “Islamists” in charge.

Mr Dowden insisted “worries about language” should not stop democratically-elected politicians calling out “threats coming often from Islamist extremists which are being used to intimidate Jews and… debate in our own Parliament.”

Appearing on Sunday’s broadcast media round, the Deputy PM accepted that “words matter” but refused to say whether he thinks Mr Anderson’s words were racist, conceding only that he understands why they “caused offence”.

Asked whether Mr Anderson would have kept the whip if he had not apologised, he told Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg: “Yes.”

“When it comes to the wording used by individual Conservatives, I said I disagreed with the language used by Lee Anderson,” he told Sky News’ Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips.

“I don’t believe that the language used by Suella Braverman has crossed the line whereby she should apologise for it. No, I don’t.”

Mr Anderson lost the Tory whip on Saturday for refusing to apologise after he said Labour London mayor Mr Khan had “given our capital city away to his mates”.

Business minister Nus Ghani and senior backbencher Sir Sajid Javid had been among Tory figures joining a growing chorus of criticism from across the political divide over the remarks.

Mr Dowden said Rishi Sunak had taken action because the comments were “wrong” and an apology from Mr Anderson was not forthcoming.

But the Prime Minister has not yet commented publicly on the remarks, with Mr Khan saying his “silence” amounts to “tacit endorsement” of Islamophobia.

Critics including Labour, the London mayor and Tory peer Baroness Warsi have said the fallout is part of a wider problem within the Conservatives, with Mr Khan calling on the PM to stop what he described as a “moral rot” in the party.

In the backlash since Friday, comparisons have been drawn with Labour’s recent handling of a leaked recording in which a parliamentary candidate suggested Israel had allowed Hamas’s October attack as a pretext to invade Gaza.

The party stood by Azhar Ali after he apologised but pulled its support after fresh reports emerged that he had blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for the suspension of a pro-Palestinian MP.

The Prime Minister was among critics who hit out at Labour at the time for initially defending the aspiring MP, saying Sir Keir had only acted “under enormous media pressure”.

Mr Anderson said he accepted that Mr Sunak and Chief Whip Simon Hart had been been put in a “difficult position” and left with “no option” but to discipline him.

“However, I will continue to support the Government’s efforts to call out extremism in all its forms – be that antisemitism or Islamophobia,” he said in a statement.

Mr Anderson, a standard bearer for the Tory right, will now sit as an Independent unless he defects to another party that chooses to offer him its backing.

Reform UK leader Richard Tice did not rule out opening the door to Mr Anderson after his suspension, telling the PA news agency on Saturday: “I haven’t been in touch with Lee, he hasn’t been in touch with me.

I will continue to support the Government’s efforts to call out extremism in all its forms – be that antisemitism or Islamophobia

Lee Anderson MP

“And we’re just focusing on doing what we’re doing and we seem to be doing something right because we’re going up in the polls and the Tories are sinking, (Rishi) Sunak is sinking and, frankly, that’s what I care about.”

Mr Anderson was deputy chairman of the Tory Party until resigning in January to rebel against Mr Sunak’s legislation to revive the stalled plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda.

He was among some 60 Conservatives who voted in favour of an amendment that sought to ensure UK and international law cannot be used to prevent or delay a person being sent to Kigali under the scheme.

Mr Anderson has served since 2019 as MP for Ashfield, one of the previously Labour seats in the so-called red wall where voters switched to the Tories post-Brexit to give Boris Johnson his landslide victory.

The Muslim Council of Britain welcomed the MP’s suspension but said the Conservative Party has “an Islamophobia problem” and his remarks are “only the tip of an iceberg”.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “An investigation and subsequent independent review, both conducted over several years by professor Swaran Singh, found no evidence of institutional racism in the Conservative Party.”