Lee Anderson comments: Islamophobia row damaging for Rishi Sunak whatever the Prime Minister does

The former deputy party chair Lee Anderson has caused a series of headaches for the Tories

Lee Anderson’s comments about London and the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan have created a row in the Tory party with no easy solution.

A former party deputy chair who resigned over the Rwanda scheme, Mr Anderson lost the Conservative whip last week after claiming "Islamists" had "got control" of the London mayor.

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His remarks prompted criticism from Labour and some Tories, with Mr Khan himself saying it fuelled "the fire of anti-Muslim hatred". The Tories were quick to act, with Rishi Sunak stripping Mr Anderson of the whip and ministers distancing themselves from the comments.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with former Tory Lee Anderson MP, before the row over his Sadiq Khan comments.Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with former Tory Lee Anderson MP, before the row over his Sadiq Khan comments.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with former Tory Lee Anderson MP, before the row over his Sadiq Khan comments.

The first problem for the government is, while they condemn Mr Anderson’s language, they won’t say why, instead insisting it was just wrong. Home Office minister Michael Tomlinson highlighted this on Tuesday morning, when he was cut off on LBC after seven times failing to answer if his comments were “Islamophobic”. His Home Office colleague Tom Pursglove also refused to use the term, explaining “I don’t think Lee personally is racist, but what he said was unacceptable”.

They aren’t the only ministers to struggle, with defence secretary Grant Shapps insisting Mr Anderson was just “frustrated”, and didn’t mean what he said.

To say yes means Mr Anderson cannot have the whip back without being known as an MP the Prime Minister thinks make bigoted remarks. Another reason Downing Street are worried is if they say yes, that Mr Anderson’s comments were Islamophobic, it would open the floodgates to comments made by a host of other Tory MPs.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman wrote “the Islamists … are in charge now”, while former Home Office minister Robert Jenrick told Parliament that Britain’s streets were now “dominated by Islamist extremists”. Speaking in America alongside US far-right conspiracy theorist Steve Bannon, Liz Truss claimed the Rochdale by-election could be won by a “radical jihadist”.

If Downing Street admits Mr Anderson’s comments were Islamophobic, they will face calls to remove the whip from other MPs who are already hostile to the Prime Minister. Mr Sunak is simply not strong enough in his standing at the moment to face down the right of his party.

Then there is the issue of Mr Anderson’s popularity, with many MPs praising him for being straight-talking, and insisting he’s done nothing wrong. This is already impacting fund-raising, with MPs now furious they can’t invite Mr Anderson to members’ events, where one Tory described him as “the most popular speaker by a country mile”.

However, there are also Tory MPs furious at Mr Sunak, believing he is failing to show leadership on a straightforward issue. More than one told The Scotsman Mr Anderson’s comments were “overtly racist”, and demanded he apologise.

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These complaints aren’t staying behind closed doors either, with five prominent Muslim Tories going public with criticism of Mr Sunak’s handling of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Conservative party. MP Rehman Chishti, former Tory chair Sayeeda Warsi, former MEP Sajjad Karim, Conservative Muslim Forum’s Mohammed Amin and Naveed Asghar all lamented the Prime Minister’s stance.

For his part, Mr Anderson has refused to apologise, saying to do so would be a sign of “weakness”. That Mr Sunak can’t be clearer in his condemnation shows the same problem.



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