Rishi Sunak’s response to the issue of Islamophobia in the Tory party has been weak - Jayne Dowle

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says he is ‘living proof’ that the UK isn’t racist, but this not only obfuscates the issue of Islamophobia in his party but inflames the fires of division yet further.

Racism and Islamophobia may share a root of hatred and intolerance, but they are not the same thing. As a Hindu born in Southampton, a clever and well-educated man like Mr Sunak knows this.

In seeking to divert attention from what suspended former deputy chairman Lee Anderson has said - he claims that “Islamists” had “got control” of the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan - the Prime Minister looks weak and afraid.

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Instead of trying to smooth over the vile rancour exposing a very nasty undercurrent in the party of government, the Prime Minister should show courage and call out the likes of Mr Anderson, who was stripped of the party whip this weekend, and Paul Scully, former minister for London, who describes parts of the capital and Birmingham as ‘no-go areas’ for non-Muslims.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets with apprentices during a visit to a factory in East Yorkshire. PIC: Paul Ellis/PA WirePrime Minister Rishi Sunak meets with apprentices during a visit to a factory in East Yorkshire. PIC: Paul Ellis/PA Wire
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets with apprentices during a visit to a factory in East Yorkshire. PIC: Paul Ellis/PA Wire

And he should show leadership and tell leading Conservative colleagues that they must unambiguously condemn such comments too.

Appointing Mr Anderson, the MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire as a Conservative party deputy chairman has now been exposed for the cynical move it always was.

By bringing this former Labour councillor into the Tory high command, Mr Sunak clearly sought to appeal to the populist wing within the party. With his “salty” language, the word used by justice secretary Alex Chalk when asked about Mr Anderson’s attitude towards asylum seekers complaining about being held on the Bibby Stockholm ship in Portland harbour, Dorset and his man-of-the-people credentials, he has been a useful counterpart to slick Mr Sunak with his £180 Bluetooth-enabled ‘smart mug’, manor house in North Yorkshire and billionaire father-in-law.

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That Mr Anderson could voice, in no uncertain terms, what the likes of arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg could only emote in his Eton-educated plummy tones, was seen as a key asset in retaining the support of new Conservative voters in the Red Wall Midlands and Northern seats taken at the 2019 General Election.

And now, as Mr Sunak is rapidly finding out, the gamble has backfired spectacularly.

In the space of a few short years, Mr Anderson had called for the restoration of the death penalty, claimed people who used food banks didn’t know how to budget – and that meals could be made for 30p – announced he wouldn’t watch the delayed Euro 2020 football tournament because he couldn’t bear to see English players taking the knee, and decried Bradford’s demand for a new railway station during the Conservative party conference, asking the hall, “Is anybody from Bradford? Would you want to get there quicker?”.

It’s reported that members of the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), which was founded by disgruntled Tories upset at the expulsion of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, are broadly in favour of the sentiments expressed by Mr Anderson and Mr Scully.

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Multiple activists are reported to be expressing support for former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who wrote in a national newspaper that “the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now”.

Whatever they might think privately, and wherever they would like to position themselves in the game of Westminster chess, all politicians should think of the country and not themselves and their own ambitions.

There is scant evidence that British voters stomach far-right views, with extreme right-wing parties generally gaining little traction at the polling booths.

However, this does not mean that mainstream politicians sanctioning extreme opinions do not make an impression on the public. Various media outlets are quickly seizing the opportunity to broadcast these questionable ‘voices of the people’.

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We are fortunate to live in a democracy and retain the right to free speech. However, by expressing such extreme views serving politicians are in danger of abusing this democratic privilege by openly fomenting hatred and further division.

To his credit, Mr Sunak has attempted to address the Anderson controversy, telling reporters: “I’ve been very clear that what he said was wrong, it was unacceptable, and that’s why we suspended the whip.

“It’s important that everybody, but particularly elected politicians, are careful with their words and do not inflame tensions.”

But it’s not muscular enough; what the haters set out to do is to use their words to inflame as much tension as possible

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