Sunak says Lee Anderson comments were wrong but denies Conservative party has ‘Islamophobic tendencies’

Prime Minister has said it is incumbent on parliamentarians not to inflame debate after Anderson made offensive comments about Sadiq Khan

Zoe Grunewald
Monday 26 February 2024 14:13 GMT
Sunak condemns Lee Anderson's comments as 'unacceptable' and 'wrong'

Rishi Sunak has said offensive comments by former deputy chairman Lee Anderson are “wrong” but denied the Conservative party has “Islamophobic tendencies”.

Mr Anderson has faced fierce backlash after he said “Islamists” had control of London mayor Sadiq Khan, and was suspended by the party over the weekend.

Asked if the party has a problem with Islamophobia on Monday morning, the prime minister told the BBC: “Of course it doesn't.”

Rishi Sunak has condemned the comments made by Lee Anderson, the former deputy party chairman
Rishi Sunak has condemned the comments made by Lee Anderson, the former deputy party chairman (Jon Super/PA Wire)

He added: “I think it's incumbent on all of us, especially those elected to Parliament, not to inflame our debates in a way that's harmful to others. Lee's comments weren't acceptable. They were wrong, and that's why he's had the whip suspended.”

Later on Monday the PM repeatedly refused to describe Mr Anderson’s comments as Islamophobic.

Speaking to broadcasters during a visit to East Yorkshire, the Prime Minister said: “I’ve been very clear that what he said was wrong, it was unacceptable, and that’s why we suspended the whip.”

But pressed on 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.”

That came after transport secretary Mark Harper has also left the door open for a possible return to the party for Mr Anderson.

Asked what he needs to say to be welcomed back, the cabinet minister told Sky News: “I hope he will reflect on what he said and he will retract those comments and apologise…

“But I’m not going to tell the chief whip how to do his job, that’s for him.”

Mr Harper continued: “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.”

The former deputy chairman’s comments have received condemnation from several senior Conservatives. Sir Robert Buckland, former justice secretary, called Mr Anderson’s comments “repugnant”, while former chairwoman under David Cameron, Baroness Warsi said his comments revealed the “rot at the heart” of the party.

Lee Anderson has faced criticism for comments made on Friday
Lee Anderson has faced criticism for comments made on Friday (PA Wire)

Baroness Warsi has also accused the government of having “dragged its heels on any work to tackle this form of racism”.

Posting on social media site X, in response to a post from business secretary Kemi Badenoch, the former party chairwoman said “all work on Islamophobia” had stopped:

“I met you alongside other colleagues over a year and a half ago and the definition was explained to you in detail - you were asked to detail your concerns / any objections and the basis of it .

“You DID NOT follow up. Instead all work on Islamophobia ( or whatever you feel we are allowed to call our racism ) has stopped.”

Baronness Warsi was responding to a post by Ms Badenoch where she had criticised Labour’s use of the term “Islamophobia”, stating that the Conservative party uses the term “Anti-Muslim hatred”:

She said: “It makes clear the law protects Muslims. In this country, we have a proud tradition of religious freedom AND the freedom to criticise religion.

“The definition of “Islamophobia” she uses creates a blasphemy law via the back door if adopted.”

Over the weekend, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden refused to say whether the former deputy chairman’s comments were Islamophobic and told BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that Mr Anderson was not "intending to be Islamophobic".

Former Conservative MP, Anna Soubry condemned Mr Downden for his refusal to condemn Mr Anderson’s comments. Talking to Sky News, Ms Soubry said Mr Dowden’s refusal to call the comments Islamophobic was “quite extraordinary”.

“Oliver Dowden, the deputy Prime Minister of our country said if he apologised he would not have lost the whip. I cannot believe the state the Conservative party has got itself into" she added.

The Telegraph has since reported that some Conservative MPs have voiced concerns about the party’s decision to let Mr Anderson go as they said their constitunents have rallied around the former deputy chairman.

Chairwoman of the Labour party Anneliese Dodds said she has written to the Conservative Party chairs seven times over the past three years calling for them to take action against Islamophobia in the party.

“This isn’t something that popped up five minutes ago, it is a continuing concern”, Ms Dodds said.

She also said that Labour is calling for the government to adopt an official definition of Islamophobia.

Lee Anderson accused Mr Khan of giving the capital ‘away to his mates’
Lee Anderson accused Mr Khan of giving the capital ‘away to his mates’ (PA Wire)

Ms Dodds said Lee Anderson’s remarks about Sadiq Khan were “appalling” and were “clearly not to do with who Sadiq Khan is, it was a slur that was directed at him because of Islamophobia”.

The Muslim Council of Britain has written to the chair of the Conservative Party demanding an investigation into “structural Islamophobia” in the party.

In a letter to Richard Holden, the organisation said it welcomes the removal of the whip from Mr Anderson, but alleged that Islamophobia “persists” in the party.

Zara Mohammed, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “Our view is that the Islamophobia in the [Conservative] Party is institutional, tolerated by the leadership and seen as acceptable by great swathes of the party membership.”

The Conservative Muslim Forum also released a statement condemning the remarks made by Mr Anderson, stating:

“The Conservative Party is a natural home for Muslim voters, we cannot let a few individuals ruin the excellent work carried out by our MPs over the last decade.”

Responding to Rishi Sunak and Mark Harper’s latest comments on Lee Anderson this morning, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said:

“The refusal of Rishi Sunak and his ministers to properly call out Lee Anderson’s extreme comments shows just how low the Conservative Party has fallen.

“Rishi Sunak needs to condemn Anderson’s comments for what they are, islamophobic and racist, and make clear he won’t be let back into the Conservative Party.

She added: “Anything less would confirm yet again that Sunak is too weak to control his party let alone govern the country.”

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