Scottish Tories demand review of £10mn donation over racism dispute

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The Scottish Conservatives have demanded the government “carefully review” its donations from Frank Hester, the businessman at the heart of a row over alleged racism, heaping fresh pressure on Rishi Sunak to hand back the money.

The intervention on Wednesday marks a damaging split within the Conservatives and came after Sunak said at prime minister’s questions that he did not intend to return a personal donation from Hester.

Sunak in December personally accepted a donation-in-kind of a helicopter trip worth £15,900 from Hester, who in 2023 gave the party £10mn, making him its largest-ever donor.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Tories said: “The Scottish Conservative party has never accepted a donation from Frank Hester and the UK Conservative party should carefully review the donations it has received from Hester in response to his remarks.”

The alleged racism dispute broke out on Monday after Hester, a healthcare technology entrepreneur, was reported to have said that looking at former Labour MP Diane Abbott made “you just want to hate all Black women”.

At prime minister’s questions, Sunak said Hester had apologised for his remarks and that his “remorse should be accepted”. Asked if he would reimburse Hester for the helicopter ride, Sunak said “no”.

Earlier on Wednesday, postal affairs minister Kevin Hollinrake said in a BBC interview that the party would accept future donations from Hester, a suggestion Sunak’s press secretary did not dispute.

In a sign of division widening in the party over the matter, Conservative West Midlands mayor Andy Street told the BBC: “I would give that money back.”

Hester has said he accepted that he had made “rude” remarks about Abbott in 2019 but insisted his criticism “had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

The saga dominated prime minister’s questions, with Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer urging Sunak to pluck up “the courage to hand back” the £10mn, while the Scottish National party’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn accused the prime minister of putting “money before morals”.

Sunak said he was “pleased that the gentleman is supporting a party that represents one of the most diverse governments in this country’s history led by this country’s first British-Asian prime minister”.

Some of his colleagues were surprised when he waited more than 24 hours after the remarks were first reported to condemn them as “racist and wrong”.

On Wednesday, Lord Gavin Barwell, who was former prime minister Theresa May’s chief of staff, told the BBC it was “hugely frustrating” that it had taken “so long” for Downing Street to call Hester’s reported language racist.

He urged the party to return Hester’s donation, saying: “Ideally, you’d want to pay it back” but acknowledged that some of the funds may have already been spent. “I don’t think we should accept any more donations from him,” he added.

Asked if the party would take another gift from the donor if offered, Hollinrake on Wednesday told the BBC: “On the basis that we don’t believe Mr Hester’s a racist, yes.”

Downing Street has sought to draw a line under the matter. It said on Tuesday that Hester “has now rightly apologised for the offence caused, and where remorse is shown it should be accepted”.

Sunak faces another political headache over the government’s planned new definition of extremism, after the two most senior clerics in the Church of England warned it risked creating “more division” in society.

In a joint statement on Wednesday Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, warned of “growing division” between different communities in the UK and said a new definition of extremism was not the “cure”.

“Instead of providing clarity or striking a conciliatory tone, we think labelling a multi-faceted problem as hateful extremism may instead vilify the wrong people and risk yet more division,” they said.

Communities secretary Michael Gove is expected to outline a new official definition of extremism in the coming days.


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