UK

Ministers refuse to call Anderson comments ‘Islamophobic’ as row drags on

Home Office minister Michael Tomlinson was asked 11 times to explain what was wrong with Lee Anderson’s comments, but did not do so.

The row over Lee Anderson’s attack on Sadiq Khan has entered its fifth day
Popular Conservatism movement launch The row over Lee Anderson’s attack on Sadiq Khan has entered its fifth day (Victoria Jones/PA)

Senior Conservatives face mounting pressure to describe Lee Anderson’s attack on Sadiq Khan as “Islamophobic” as the row over his comments entered its fifth day.

Ministers repeatedly declined to use the term to describe the former Tory deputy chairman’s comments, with Home Office minister Michael Tomlinson forced to deny that he and his colleagues had been instructed not to use the word after refusing multiple times to say what had been wrong with Mr Anderson’s comments.

Facing questions from broadcasters on Tuesday, Mr Tomlinson refused 11 times to explain why he thought Mr Anderson’s comments were “wrong”, with LBC host Nick Ferrari terminating their interview early saying he was “unable to answer a question”.

His Home Office colleague Tom Pursglove also refused to use the term, telling Times Radio: “I don’t think Lee personally is racist but what he said was unacceptable.”

The Prime Minister and others have condemned Mr Anderson’s comments, in which he claimed “Islamists” and “got control” of the Mayor of London, as “wrong” but have so far shied away from calling them “Islamophobic”.

Illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson was asked 11 times to explain why he thought Lee Anderson’s comments were wrong, but declined to do so
Cabinet meeting Illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson was asked 11 times to explain why he thought Lee Anderson’s comments were wrong, but declined to do so (Lucy North/PA)

Their reluctance to refer to “Islamophobia” has been criticised by Labour as “weak”, with one frontbencher saying the Prime Minister was “in hock” to “a strange coalition of MPs”.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said on Tuesday: “He (Anderson) should know better than that, he has been a senior figure within the Conservative Party.

“But I think it speaks to Rishi Sunak’s weakness on this that his response has been wholly inadequate.”

On Tuesday morning, Downing Street said the Prime Minister regarded Mr Anderson’s comments as wrong because they had conflated all Muslims with Islamist extremism.

The latest developments come after James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, joined calls for the former Tory deputy chairman to apologise – something Mr Anderson refused to do on Monday, instead renewing his criticism of Mr Khan.

Speaking to the PA news agency in San Francisco on Monday, Mr Cleverly said: “The Prime Minister has made the position of the party clear, he has asked Lee to apologise, Lee didn’t apologise which is why the party whip has been withdrawn.

“I think Lee should apologise, what he said wasn’t accurate, it wasn’t fair, but the Chief Whip and the Prime Minister have made the party position absolutely clear on this.”

The former Tory deputy chairman on Monday admitted his original remarks were “clumsy”, but said saying sorry “would be a sign of weakness”.

Mr Anderson told GB News: “When you think you are right you should never apologise because to do so would be a sign of weakness.”

In a statement to the channel, where he presents a weekly show, he said he had made comments “that some people thought were divisive”.

“Politics is divisive and I am just incredibly frustrated about the abject failures of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan,” Mr Anderson said.

“My words may have been clumsy but my words were borne out of sheer frustration at what is happening to our beautiful capital city.”

In a fresh attack on Mr Khan, the now-independent MP said: “Hundreds of people had been arrested for racist abuse on these marches and we barely hear a peep from the mayor. If these marches were about something less fashionable, Sadiq Khan would have been the first to call for them to be cancelled. It’s double standards for political benefit.”

Mr Sunak said Mr Anderson had been deprived of the Tory whip because his “choice of words wasn’t acceptable, it was wrong”.

But he refused to describe the MP’s comments as Islamophobic when pressed repeatedly.

Sir Keir Starmer said the Tory leader “lacks the backbone to call this out for what it is”.

And Labour London Mayor Mr Khan wrote in the Evening Standard: “It shouldn’t be hard to call out comments that are so unambiguously ignorant, prejudiced and racist. Yet those at the top of the Conservative Government are stubbornly refusing to do so.

“It’s a tacit endorsement of anti-Muslim hatred and can only lead to the conclusion that anti-Muslim bigotry and racism are not taken seriously.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said Lee Anderson has ‘poured petrol on the fires of hatred’
Air pollution measures apology Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said Lee Anderson has ‘poured petrol on the fires of hatred’ (Victoria Jones/PA)

The Prime Minister also declined to criticise former home secretary Suella Braverman, who claimed “the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now”.

“I think that those comments were not about an individual in particular,” he said, adding that “it’s important that we call out” the kind of “unacceptable” scenes “we have been witnessing on our streets in recent times”.

On Tuesday, Mr Tomlinson, the illegal migration minister, said he thought Ms Braverman was “not right” in her comments, but added he did not think she should have the whip withdrawn.

Reform UK leader Richard Tice did not rule out opening the door to Mr Anderson after his suspension, saying MPs considering defection “have my number”.

The Liberal Democrats have tabled a so-called censure motion calling on Parliament to rebuke Mr Anderson’s comments and demanding he come to the House and apologise.

Lib Dem women and equalities spokesperson Christine Jardine said: “If the Government is too weak to call out this behaviour, the House – including Conservative MPs – must take matters into its own hands and show that Islamophobia is not tolerated in Parliament, not go completely silent on the issue or look for a way to excuse the inexcusable.”