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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Matt Watts

Rishi Sunak in growing storm after failing to condemn Lee Anderson rant as Islamophobic

Rishi Sunak was hit by a growing Islamophobia storm on Monday after he failed to condemn Lee Anderson’s “Islamists” rant against Sadiq Khan as racist.

The Prime Minister was criticised for not taking a tougher line against Mr Anderson, as he refused to describe the MP’s comments as Islamophobic.

Mr Sunak, in media interviews on Monday 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, telling broadcasters: “I think the most important thing is that the words were wrong, they were ill-judged, they were unacceptable...

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

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

Speaking to reporters in Shrewsbury, the Labour leader said: “I think this is straightforward. It’s Islamophobia and the Prime Minister should call it out for what it is.

“The reason he won’t is because he is so weak.”

Sadiq Khan said that Mr Sunak’s refusal to call out Anderson’s comments as Islamophobic was “a tacit endorsement of anti-Muslim hatred and can only lead to the conclusion that anti-Muslim bigotry and racism are not taken seriously”.

Mr Anderson had “poured petrol on the fire of this hatred”, Khan wrote in the Evening Standard as he accused the Tories of “a strategy to weaponise anti-Muslim prejudice for electoral gain”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with Lee Anderson in January (Jacob King/PA) (PA Wire)

Former London minister Paul Scully was one of a number of senior Tories who criticised Mr Anderson’s outburst, calling Mr Anderson’s remarks “wrong-headed” and “inflammatory”.

But the then MP found himself at the centre of a fresh controversy, after claiming that a part of Birmingham with a large Muslim community was a “no-go area”.

West Midlands mayor Andy Street lambasted fellow Conservative Mr Scully for “The idea that Birmingham has a ‘no-go’ zone is news to me, and I suspect the good people of Sparkhill,” Mr Street said on X,” formerly Twitter.

“It really is time for those in Westminster to stop the nonsense slurs and experience the real world.”

No 10 said Mr Sunak did not agree with Mr Scully’s assessment. Asked whether the Prime Minister concurred that there are “no-go” areas in Birmingham, his official spokesman said: “No, and the PM has talked before about the value of the very diverse communities and societies that we have in the UK.”

Mr Scully is understood to have been seeking to describe the perception that there are “no-go areas”. He later stressed that he had “championed“ Muslims communities in Britain for adecade.

Paul Scully was criticised over his remarks by West Midlands mayor Andy Street (PA Media)

Mr Anderson on Monday doubled down on his criticism of Mr Khan and refused to apologise for his remarks.

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

The Ashfield MP was suspended over the weekend after he claimed “Islamists” had “got control” of Mr Khan and London.

On Monday, 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.

A Conservative party source had defended Mr Anderson’s comments on Friday night, before he was stripped of party support on Saturday amid mounting condemnation from across the political divide.

Mr Anderson 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.

“I do not and will not give a running commentary on any discussions I have with any MPs, but those MPs have my number,” he said in a statement.

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

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arriving to give media interviews at the end of his visit to Siemens Mobility factory in Goole, Yorkshire. (Paul Ellis/PA Wire)

Shadow home secretary Cooper was among those to criticise the comments, saying: “I think this is total nonsense. It’s sadly what you would expect from Suella Braverman, who has a history of just deliberately saying inflammatory things for the sake of headlines.But Mr Sunak said: “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”.

Asked whether his party has an Islamophobia problem, Mr Sunak told local BBC radio stations in the morning: “No, of course it doesn’t”.

Mr Anderson’s comments have put a spotlight on the ongoing dispute over the classification of Islamophobia.

Downing Street reiterated the Government’s position of refusing to back the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims’ 2019 definition.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “As the Government has stated previously, there are issues in relation to the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia, which conflates race with religion, does not address sectarianism within Islam, and may unintentionally undermine freedom of speech.

“But as I’ve said, we have always been clear that this Government does not and will not tolerate anti-Muslim hatred.”

Tory peer Baroness Warsi criticised Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch after she said the definition supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats “creates a blasphemy law via the back door if adopted”.

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