Rishi Sunak urged to speak out by Tory peer as Islamophobia row deepens | Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak has been urged to break his silence over a mounting Islamophobia row as senior Conservatives criticised the “dangerous” rhetoric of the party’s former deputy chair.

Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, was suspended from the Conservative party on Saturday after refusing to apologise for saying Islamists had “got control of” Sadiq Khan. Anderson claimed on GB News that the London mayor had “given our capital city away to his mates”.

The remarks have led to calls for the prime minister to explicitly denounce anti-Muslim bigotry and act to tackle it internally.

Sayeeda Warsi, the Tory peer who was a cabinet minister in David Cameron’s government, said Sunak needed to “find the language” to “call Islamophobia Islamophobia”.

“What is it about the prime minister that he can’t even call out anti-Muslim racism and anti-Muslim bigotry? Why can’t he just use those words?” she told the Guardian.

Asked whether Sunak should explicitly condemn Anderson’s comments as Islamophobia, Warsi said: “Of course he should. If you can’t call racism racism, if you can’t call antisemitism antisemitism, and if you can’t call Islamophobia Islamophobia, then how are we going to fix it?”

In a statement on Sunday, Sunak decried “the explosion in prejudice and antisemitism since the Hamas terrorist attacks on 7 October” in Israel. He did not explicitly refer to Islamophobia. Khan criticised the prime minister on social media for failing “to mention anti-Muslim hatred at all”.

Speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg show on Sunday, the deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden said he did not agree with Anderson’s comments but added: “I don’t believe that Lee Anderson said those remarks intending to be Islamophobic.”

A Conservative party source defended the comments on Friday night, but Anderson was suspended from the party whip on Saturday after refusing to apologise for them.

Paul Scully, the former Tory minister for London, said: “We went through all this about Sadiq Khan and his ‘friends’ and all that kind of stuff when Zac Goldsmith was fighting Sadiq [for the mayoralty] the first time. It didn’t work then and it’s not going to work now … It’s just not appropriate.”

Lee Anderson was suspended from the Conservative party for saying the London mayor had ‘given our capital city away to his mates’. Photograph: James Veysey/Shutterstock

Ministers also faced questions over why no action had been taken against Suella Braverman, the former home secretary who wrote an article for the Telegraph saying: “The truth is that the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now.”

One Tory MP said: “What I can’t work out is why Suella hasn’t had the whip removed. She said it first.”

Another claimed: “Suella’s language has been irresponsible and inflammatory for years. She thinks she needs to reflect what she thinks is public opinion. Actually the British public are far more generous in spirit than she is … She is running in front of herds, polarising opinion and providing the conditions for extremism on all sides to grow. Anderson is an idiot. She [Braverman] is causing harm.”

Warsi said: “There will always be people who hide behind the word Zionist, people with a long history of antisemitism who use the term Zionist when they actually mean Jews. It’s a very disingenuous form of antisemitism. And there are always people with a long history of anti-Muslim racism who will hide behind the word Islamist when they actually mean Muslims.”

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland, the Tory MP for South Swindon, launched a broadside against Anderson, Braverman and Liz Truss and said that any Conservative politician intent on stoking division “had better get out and join another party”.

There was also criticism of the party’s inaction against Truss, the former prime minister, who last week took part in an interview with Steve Bannon, a former chief strategist to Donald Trump. She remained silent as Bannon hailed the far-right figure Tommy Robinson as a “hero”.

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Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow paymaster general, wrote to Sunak on Sunday urging him to suspend Truss from the party. “If you do not take action you will be allowing the divisive, deluded and dangerous views of the far-right into mainstream British politics,” he said.

The Conservative party is divided over Anderson’s future and whether his controversial style of politics helps the party reach socially conservative voters. Some Tory cabinet ministers suggested on Sunday that the door was open for Anderson to return later down the line.

Liz Truss’s part in an interview with Steve Bannon at the Conservative Political Action Conference has also sparked criticism. Photograph: Michael Brochstein/Rex/Shutterstock

Asked about his comments, David TC Davies, the secretary of state for Wales, told BBC Radio Wales: “Lee has made a good contribution to the Conservative party over the years and I hope this issue is going to get sorted out.” He later added that Anderson “has got a good contribution to make and I hope he might return”.

Meanwhile Dowden said: “We gave him the opportunity to apologise. Of course, if he apologises, we’d look at the nature of that and make a determination at that point. But that’s a matter for the chief whip.”

Any attempt to readmit Anderson would be resisted by centrist Conservative MPs, who think his incendiary comments repel moderate voters. One senior Tory said: “I think it will be very difficult for the party to readmit Lee given the hard time we have given Labour on racism and discrimination. No 10 did the right thing by acting swiftly and decisively. We have to be clear what we stand for – we either stand up to racism in all its forms or we don’t.”

The Muslim Council of Britain, Britain’s largest Muslim body, said the Conservative party should launch an investigation into alleged “structural Islamophobia” within its ranks.

In a letter to Tory chairman Richard Holden, MCB secretary general Zara Mohammed said: “Our view is that the Islamophobia in the party is institutional, tolerated by the leadership and seen as acceptable by great swathes of the party membership.”

The row comes after Labour faced its own crisis over antisemitism. The party stood by its Rochdale byelection candidate, Azhar Ali, after he was recorded claiming Israel had allowed the 7 October attacks as a pretext to invade Gaza, saying he had immediately apologised. The party withdrew its support when it emerged that Ali also blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for the suspension of another Labour MP.

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