UK's Conservatives say the party's biggest donor made racist comments, but they will keep his money

A minister in Britain’s Conservative government says the party does not plan to give back 10 million pounds ($12.8 million) it received in the past year from a donor who made comments that have been condemned as racist

Jill Lawless
Wednesday 13 March 2024 11:56 GMT
Britain Conservatives
Britain Conservatives (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

A minister in Britain’s Conservative government said Wednesday that the party does not plan to give back 10 million pounds ($12.8 million) it received in the past year from a donor who made comments about a Black lawmaker that have been condemned as racist.

The government is under pressure from some of its own lawmakers to return the donation from business executive Frank Hester. He reportedly said in a 2019 company meeting that Diane Abbott, Britain’s longest-serving Black legislator, made him “want to hate all Black women” and that she “should be shot.”

Hester, chief executive of healthcare software firm The Phoenix Partnership, is the Conservative Party’s biggest donor. His company has been paid more than 400 million pounds ($510 million) by the National Health Service and other government bodies since 2016.

After the comments were published by The Guardian newspaper, Hester acknowledged that he’d been “rude about Diane Abbott" but denied being racist. In a statement on social media, he said racism “is a poison that has no place in public life.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak initially criticized Hester’s comments as “unacceptable,” but it took almost 24 hours for him to call the remarks racist. His spokesman said Tuesday evening that “the comments allegedly made by Frank Hester were racist and wrong.”

Business Minister Kevin Hollinrake told broadcasters on Wednesday that the party would not give back the money Hester had given to the party. He told Sky News that “clearly” the comments were racist, but that it was right to keep the donation because Hester “is not a racist, and he has apologized for what he said.”

Asked by the BBC whether the party would take more money from Hester, Hollinrake said: “As I now understand the situation, yes.”

But Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of England’s West Midlands region, told BBC radio that if it were up to him, “I would think about the company I kept and I would give that money back.”

Nus Ghani, a senior Conservative lawmaker and junior business minister, said on social media: “Zero tolerance on racism is just a slogan in today's politics.”

Britain’s political parties are trying to build up funds for election campaigns later this year. Figures from the Electoral Commission show the Conservatives received 9.8 million pounds ($12.5 million) from individual donors in the final three months of 2023, and the main opposition Labour Party 6 million pounds ($7.7 million).

The Guardian published further alleged remarks by Hester on Wednesday. It said he’d told a crowded staff meeting that Indian employees could sit on the roof of a nearby train if there wasn't enough room.

Abbott, 70, was elected to the House of Commons in 1987 representing an area of east London, becoming Britain's first Black woman member of Parliament. She sits as an independent after being kicked out of the Labour Party caucus last year for comments that suggested Jewish and Irish people do not experience racism “all their lives.”

She called Hester’s comments “frightening,” especially since two British lawmakers have been murdered since 2016. The government said last month it would step up politicians' security because of rising tensions over the Israel-Hamas war.

Police in London said they were assessing the matter after their parliamentary liaison and investigation team was contacted about the Guardian’s initial report.

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