Sunak struggles to contain mounting row over alleged Islamophobia

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Sadiq Khan, London’s Labour mayor, has accused the Conservatives of trying to “weaponise anti-Muslim prejudice for electoral gain”, as a row over alleged Islamophobia in Rishi Sunak’s party intensified.

The prime minister on Monday urged MPs to stop using words that “inflame” community tensions, denouncing comments last week by former Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson as “wrong”.

Anderson had the Tory whip withdrawn at the weekend after claiming that Islamists had “got control” of London and its mayor. But Sunak repeatedly refused on Monday to condemn Anderson’s comments as “Islamophobic”.

The row has alarmed moderate Conservative MPs, who fear discipline is breaking down and that increasingly strident language from Tory rightwingers will harm the party’s electoral prospects.

“People want to see a coming together of our country, not an exacerbation of tensions,” said former cabinet minister Sir Robert Buckland. “A noisy minority get a platform. I’ve absolutely had enough of it.”

Khan, writing in the London Evening Standard, said Anderson’s remarks were “vile, racist, anti-Muslim and Islamophobic”, but that Sunak had yet to denounce them in those terms.

“It shouldn’t be hard to call out comments that are so unambiguously ignorant, prejudiced and racist,” he said, adding: “It’s a deliberate, dangerous political strategy — a strategy to weaponise anti-Muslim prejudice for electoral gain.”

Anderson was suspended from the party over the weekend after causing outrage for telling television channel GB News on Friday that Khan had “given our capital city away to his mates”.

During a series of interviews on Monday, Sunak said Anderson’s comments were “wrong and unacceptable”, telling the BBC: “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.”

Asked on Radio York whether his party had a problem with Islamophobia — former home secretary Suella Braverman claimed on Friday that Islamists had taken control of Britain — Sunak said: “Of course it doesn’t . . . Lee’s comments weren’t acceptable. They were wrong, that’s why he’s had the whip suspended.

“Words matter, especially in the current environment, when tensions are running high. It’s incumbent on all of us to choose them carefully.” He added: “My priority is to try to take the heat out of this situation.”

Sunak said racism was “completely unacceptable and we must stamp it out”. He claimed Britain was “the most successful multi-ethnic democracy in the world”.

Anderson told the Financial Times: “I’ve said I’m not going to apologise — how many more times do I have to say it?” He declined to comment on overtures from Nigel Farage, founder of the anti-immigration Reform UK party, who wants him to defect. “That’s news to me,” said Anderson.

Sunak declined to say whether the former deputy Tory chair would have the whip reinstated if he was to apologise and insisted: “I don’t believe Lee is a racist or Islamophobic person.”

Many Conservative MPs are uneasy about the rhetoric used by Anderson and Braverman, along with conspiracy theories espoused by former prime minister Liz Truss last week that Britain was being run by “the Deep State”.

Sunak is under pressure, particularly from moderate One Nation Tory MPs, to rein in those on the right of the party, amid fears that their language could alienate liberal Conservative voters.

Sir Gary Streeter, a mainstream Tory MP for more than 30 years, said he was concerned his colleagues were starting to publicly fight over the future control of the party in anticipation of a heavy defeat to Labour in the general election due later this year. The main opposition party has held a consistent 20-point average lead in the polls over the Conservatives in recent months.

“This close to a tricky election, all Conservatives should be closing ranks behind our outstanding prime minister and exposing the weaknesses in our opponents, instead of jostling for post-election supremacy,” he said. “We will pay a heavy price if this perverse beauty parade continues.”


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