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Kemi Badenoch breaks ranks to brand Tory donor’s alleged comments ‘racist’

Kemi Badenoch has broken ranks with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak by branding comments reportedly made by a major Conservative Party donor about MP Diane Abbott as “racist”.

Frank Hester is alleged to have said Ms Abbott, Britain’s longest-serving black MP, made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”.

Downing Street described the reported remarks as “unacceptable” but has refused to say whether they were racist.

Police are now understood to have been contacted about the alleged comments, with Scotland Yard saying officers from its Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team were in touch with an MP over a report that appeared in the Guardian.

Business Secretary Ms Badenoch became the first Cabinet minister to call Mr Hester’s alleged words out as such.

She tweeted: “Hester’s 2019 comments, as reported, were racist. I welcome his apology.

“Abbott and I disagree on a lot. But the idea of linking criticism of her, to being a black woman is appalling.

“It’s never acceptable to conflate someone’s views with the colour of their skin.”

Health minister Maria Caulfield earlier told the BBC she considered the alleged comments to be racist and were “not something we should be kind of excusing in any way”.

But in a sign of divisions within the Tory Party over the issue, ministers sent on the morning media round defended Mr Hester.

Energy minister Graham Stuart said that, while the alleged remarks were “ridiculous”, he would “hesitate” to describe them as racist.

Cabinet minister Mel Stride argued that Mr Hester’s reported words were not “gender-based or race-based”, adding: “He has apologised and I think we need to move on from that.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “I wouldn’t usually comment on alleged words, second-hand accounts etc.

“But, as Minister Stuart said this morning, what is alleged and reported to have been said is clearly unacceptable.”

Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott said Frank Hester’s alleged comments were ‘frightening’ (Ian West/PA)

He refused to say whether they were racist or why they were unacceptable, insisting: “I don’t have anything to add beyond what Minister Stuart said this morning.”

Pressed on whether Mr Sunak had spoken to Mr Hester to find out whether he uttered the remarks, a No 10 spokeswoman declined to “get into private conversations”.

Ms Abbott herself said the reported comments were “frightening” and “alarming” given that two MPs – Jo Cox and Sir David Amess – had been murdered in recent years.

The former Labour MP had reported Mr Hester’s “deeply offensive and threatening” remarks to the police, according to the Independent.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats branded Mr Hester’s alleged comments as “clearly racist and abhorrent” and urged the Tories to return the money he had donated to the party.

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said: “On Monday, 11 March officers from the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team were contacted in relation to a report about an MP that appeared in the Guardian.

“We are assessing the matter and are liaising with West Yorkshire Police as the alleged incident is believed to have taken place in Leeds.

“Officers from the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team remain in contact with the MP.”

Mr Hester, chief executive of healthcare software firm The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), has admitted making “rude” comments about Ms Abbott, but claimed they had “nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

The Guardian reported that he told a company meeting in 2019: “It’s like trying not to be racist but you see Diane Abbott on the TV, and you’re just like … you just want to hate all black women because she’s there.

“And I don’t hate all black women at all, but I think she should be shot.”

In a statement released via his firm, Mr Hester said he had rung Ms Abbott on Monday to “apologise directly for the hurt he has caused her”.

“Frank Hester accepts that he was rude about Diane Abbot (sic) in a private meeting several years ago but his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin,” the statement said.

Graham Stuart
Energy minister Graham Stuart defended the Conservative Party’s biggest donor (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“He wishes to make it clear that he regards racism as a poison which has no place in public life.”

Asked about Mr Hester’s alleged comments, Mr Stuart told Times Radio: “I’m hesitating to call it that because I don’t like to sit in judgment on these things.

“It was clearly a ridiculous thing to say, he’s rightly apologised for it, and here’s a man who’s supporting the most diverse Cabinet we’ve ever had under this Conservative Party.

“We’ve got a Hindu Prime Minister, and he’s our biggest donor, so I don’t think this is a man who is a racist.”

But Ms Abbott, the first black woman elected to Parliament, said the situation was “frightening”.

“I live in Hackney and do not drive, so I find myself, at weekends, popping on a bus or even walking places more than most MPs. I am a single woman and that makes me vulnerable anyway,” she said.

“But to hear someone talking like this is worrying … The fact that two MPs have been murdered in recent years makes talk like this all the more alarming.

“I am currently not a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party but remain a member of the Labour Party itself, so I am hoping for public support from Keir Starmer.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told ITV’s Lorraine: “The comments about Diane Abbott are just abhorrent …

“This apology this morning that is pretending that what was said wasn’t racist or anything to do with the fact she’s a woman, I don’t buy that I’m afraid, and I think that it’s time the Tory Party called it out and returned the money.”

Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds accused the Tories of being in a “mess”, saying “They haven’t called out Islamophobia in their ranks. They can’t condemn racism. They won’t challenge wild conspiracy theories.

“You can’t solve a problem until you can face up to it.”

Ms Dodds wrote to Mr Sunak highlighting that on top of the £10 million the Tories had received from Mr Hester, the Prime Minister had accepted a personal gift of nearly £16,000 for a helicopter ride.

She wrote: “Accepting and using that money can only be treated as implicitly condoning and overlooking his deeply disturbing comments and the way he has run his business.

“Anything less than returning the money will be a stain on the Conservative Party.”

A Conservative spokeswoman said: “Mr Hester has made clear that, while he was rude, his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor the colour of her skin.

“He has since apologised.”