UK

Anderson has Tory whip suspended after ‘refusal to apologise’ for Islamist claim

Pressure had been mounting on Rishi Sunak to take action over the comments from the Ashfield MP.

Lee Anderson has had the Tory whip suspended
Israel-Hamas conflict Lee Anderson has had the Tory whip suspended (Victoria Jones/PA)

Lee Anderson has been suspended from the Conservative Party after drawing widespread criticism for claiming that “Islamists” have “got control” of London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

The decision was taken following the former Tory deputy chairman’s “refusal to apologise” for the remarks made on Friday, a spokesperson for chief whip Simon Hart said.

Pressure had been mounting on Rishi Sunak to take action over the comments by the Ashfield MP, with Mr Khan saying the “deafening silence” of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on the matter amounted to condoning racism.

A Conservative source was defending Mr Anderson as recently as Friday evening before he was stripped of party support on Saturday afternoon.

Cabinet minister Grant Shapps earlier distanced himself from the remarks but stopped short of condemning his fellow MP, arguing that people should be allowed to “speak their mind”.

However, business minister Nus Ghani and senior backbencher Sir Sajid Javid were among other Tory figures joining a growing chorus of criticism from across the political divide.

In an appearance on GB News on Friday, Mr Anderson had said: “I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan and they’ve got control of London… He’s actually given our capital city away to his mates.”

The claim was denounced by former chancellor Sir Sajid as “ridiculous” and by Tory peer Gavin Barwell, who was Theresa May’s No 10 chief of staff, as a “despicable slur”.

Sir Sajid Javid condemned Lee Anderson’s remarks
Covid-19 pandemic inquiry Sir Sajid Javid condemned Lee Anderson’s remarks (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Conservative peer Baroness Warsi, who has criticised her party’s handling of Islamophobia allegations in the past, said his comments were just “the tip of the iceberg” and said the Tories must rid themselves of “extremists”.

Labour had called on Mr Sunak to “show some leadership” and discipline the MP, with shadow Cabinet Office minister Jonathan Ashworth writing a letter to the PM demanding the whip be withdrawn.

Following his suspension, Sir Keir Starmer accused the PM of harbouring “extremists” in the party and said his “weakness” allows MPs to “act with impunity”.

A spokesperson for Mr Hart said: “Following his refusal to apologise for comments made yesterday, the chief whip has suspended the Conservative whip from Lee Anderson MP.”

Mr Anderson said in a statement later: “Following a call with the Chief Whip, I understand the difficult position that I have put both he and the Prime Minister in with regard to my comments.

“I fully accept that they had no option but to suspend the whip in these circumstances.

“However, I will continue to support the Government’s efforts to call out extremism in all its forms – be that antisemitism or Islamophobia.”

Mr Anderson, a standard bearer for the Tory right, will now sit as an Independent unless he defects to another party that chooses to offer him its backing.

Reform UK leader Richard Tice did not rule out opening the door to Mr Anderson after his suspension, telling the PA news agency on Saturday: “I haven’t been in touch with Lee, he hasn’t been in touch with me.

“And we’re just focusing on doing what we’re doing and we seem to be doing something right because we’re going up in the polls and the Tories are sinking, (Rishi) Sunak is sinking and, frankly, that’s what I care about.”

Mr Anderson was deputy chairman of the Tory Party until resigning in January to rebel against Mr Sunak’s legislation to revive the stalled plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda.

He joined 58 other Conservatives to vote in favour of an amendment that sought to ensure UK and international law cannot be used to prevent or delay a person being sent to Kigali under the scheme.

Mr Anderson has served since 2019 as MP for Ashfield, one of the previously Labour seats in the so-called red wall where voters switched to the Tories post-Brexit to give Boris Johnson his landslide victory.

On Saturday, Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said the suggestion that Mr Anderson would have kept the Prime Minister’s confidence if he had apologised for his remarks was “deeply concerning”.

“These views are wrong, full stop, and there shouldn’t be conditions on removing them from your party,” she said.

Sir Keir said: “This isn’t just embarrassing for the Conservative Party, it emboldens the worst forces in our politics. Rishi Sunak needs to get a grip and take on the extremists in his party.”

In the backlash since Friday, comparisons have been drawn with Labour’s recent handling of a leaked recording in which a parliamentary candidate suggested Israel had allowed Hamas’ October attack as pretext to invade Gaza.

The party stood by Azhar Ali after he apologised, but pulled its support after fresh reports that he had blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for the suspension of a pro-Palestinian MP emerged.

The Prime Minister was among critics who hit out at Labour at the time for initially defending the aspiring MP, saying Sir Keir had only acted “under enormous media pressure”.

Responding to Mr Anderson’s comments, Mr Khan said they were “Islamophobic, racist” and pour “fuel on the fire of anti-Muslim hatred”.

“I’m unclear why Rishi Sunak and members of his Cabinet aren’t calling this out or condemning this,” he said.

The Muslim Council of Britain welcomed the MP’s suspension but said the Conservative Party has “an Islamophobia problem” and his remarks are “only the tip of an iceberg”.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “An investigation and subsequent independent review, both conducted over several years by professor Swaran Singh, found no evidence of institutional racism in the Conservative Party.”