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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Michael Savage Policy Editor

Starmer accuses Sunak of harbouring ‘extremists’ in Islamophobia row

Lee Anderson
Lee Anderson, the former Tory party deputy chairman, claimed London mayor Sadiq Khan was under the control of Islamists. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

Keir Starmer has accused Rishi Sunak of harbouring “extremists in his party” after a prominent MP was suspended for inflammatory comments about the London mayor, and other senior Conservatives faced condemnation over “toxic” rhetoric.

The Labour leader spoke out on Saturday night after the suspension of Lee Anderson, the party’s former deputy chairman, who had claimed London mayor Sadiq Khan was under the control of “Islamists”.

While Tory sources initially defended Anderson, action was taken amid a wave of anger from within the party that plunged it into a fresh bout of infighting.

Anderson’s remarks followed soon after an article by former home secretary Suella Braverman in which she stated: “The Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge.”

Meanwhile, at a rightwing conference in the US, former prime minister Liz Truss remained silent during an interview in which far-right figure Tommy Robinson was described as a “hero”.

Speaking to the Observer, Starmer accused Sunak of serious weakness. “It’s right that Lee Anderson has lost the whip after this appalling racist and Islamophobic outburst,” he said.

“But what does it say about the prime minister’s judgment that he made Lee Anderson deputy chairman of his party?

“Whether it is Liz Truss staying silent on Tommy Robinson or Suella Braverman’s extreme rhetoric, Rishi Sunak’s weakness means Tory MPs can act with impunity. 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. The Tories may be getting more and more desperate as the election approaches, but Rishi Sunak has a responsibility to stop this slide into ever more toxic rhetoric.”

Starmer spoke out after a growing cross-party backlash over Anderson’s remarks, which were made on Friday. As well as saying Islamists controlled Khan, Anderson said that the London mayor had “given our capital city away to his mates”. He will now no longer sit as a Tory MP. However, no action is expected against Truss or Braverman.

A Conservative source had initially defended Anderson, saying he was “simply making the point that the mayor, in his capacity as police and crime commissioner for London, has abjectly failed to get a grip on the appalling Islamist marches we have seen in London recently”.

While there were some Tory concerns that suspending Anderson would see him join Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit party, which is gaining support on the right, senior figures stepped in to say that the party would not “trade our values” out of fear of his possible defection.

Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, had already quit as deputy chair of the Conservative party after he decided to rebel against Sunak’s Rwanda bill.

It is understood that Anderson was not suspended over his claims that there were extremist elements in recent protests, but because of the way he had made specific allegations against Khan.

The Tories had previously criticised Labour for being too slow to disown a candidate who repeated a conspiracy theory about the 7 October attacks on Israel.

Anderson was given the opportunity to apologise and avoid suspension, but he refused to do so.

Sajid Javid, the former health secretary, is among those said to have been angered by the remarks.

The pressure increased significantly when Nusrat Ghani, a serving minister and the first female Muslim minister to speak from the House of Commons dispatch box, revealed that she had confronted Anderson over his comments.

“I have spoken to Lee Anderson,” she wrote on X. “I’ve called out Islamic extremism (and been attacked by hard left, far right and Islamists). I don’t for one moment believe that Sadiq Khan is controlled by Islamists. To say so, is both foolish and dangerous. Frankly this is all so tiring.”

Before the suspension was announced, Khan accused Anderson of Islamophobia and racism, while also accusing the prime minister of a “deafening silence” after the comments.

“I am unclear why Rishi Sunak, why members of his cabinet aren’t calling this out and aren’t condemning this,” he said. “It’s like they are complicit in this sort of racism. The message it sends is Muslims are fair game when it comes to racism and anti-Muslim hatred.”

In a statement, Anderson said: “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.”

Margot James, a former Tory minister on the liberal wing of the party, said Anderson should not have been in the party in the first place. “At last, the whip removed from Anderson,” she said. “He should never have been a Conservative MP – let alone a vice-chair of the party.”

Serving senior ministers were in despair last night over the behaviour of several senior party figures over the last week, with one cabinet minister describing it as an “awful” few days that have yet again plunged the Tories into infighting.

Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chair, said it was “deeply concerning” that Anderson could have retained the Tory whip and continued to sit as a Tory MP had he apologised for comments she described as “unambiguously Islamophobic, divisive and damaging”. She also called for action against Truss and Braverman.

“It’s clear the prime minister still needs to do more to tackle extremists in his party, with former prime minister Liz Truss and former home secretary Suella Braverman still unashamedly giving voice to hateful commentary and conspiracy theories.”

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