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Rishi Sunak squirms as Lee Anderson doubles down on Islamophobic rant

Rishi Sunak was left squirming as he repeatedly refused to condemn as racist Lee Anderson’s widely criticised rant about Sadiq Khan being controlled by “Islamists”.

The prime minister has consistently declined to say whether the Tory former deputy chair’s remarks were Islamophobic or anti-Muslim, saying he was suspended only because they were “wrong”.

And, as Mr Anderson doubled down on the controversial rant, the prime minister also left the door open for his return to the Tory benches.

Sir Keir Starmer ramped up the pressure on the PM, accusing him of “lacking the backbone” to call out Mr Anderson’s “Islamophobia”.

The Labour leader said Mr Sunak is “too weak” to condemn the former Tory deputy chairman’s anti-Muslim rant as racist.

And as Mr Anderson said it would be “a sign of weakness” to apologise, Mr Sunak continued with his refusal to describe the comments as Islamophobic.

Rishi Sunak made Lee Anderson deputy chair of the Conservative Party (PA)
Rishi Sunak made Lee Anderson deputy chair of the Conservative Party (PA)

Appearing on GB News last week, Mr Anderson said Muslim mayor Mr Khan is controlled by “Islamists”.

He was suspended as a Tory MP after refusing to apologise for the remark, but the prime minister has refused to describe it as racist and ministers have not ruled out restoring the whip to Mr Anderson.

As the fallout from Mr Anderson’s remarks grew:

  • A Tory minister said the whip was removed from Mr Anderson “because anti-Muslim hatred is wrong”

  • A Labour former minister said Mr Anderson’s comments led to a torrent of far-right abuse, forcing her to seek extra police support

  • Mr Anderson said the “vast majority” of Muslims in the UK are “decent”, but refused to apologise for his comments

  • Reform UK appeared to extend an invite for Mr Anderson to join the insurgent right-wing party

Sir Keir said Mr Sunak “lacks the backbone to call out “Islamophobia” after the remarks.

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.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone can make any excuses for this prime minister and say it’s all too difficult.

“It’s very straightforward, he lacks the backbone to call this out for what it is because he’s leading a divided party, a chaotic party and it’s no wonder people have just had enough of this after 14 years, and desperately want change.”

Keir Starmer said Rishi Sunak is ‘too weak’ to call out Lee Anderson’s Islamophobia (PA)
Keir Starmer said Rishi Sunak is ‘too weak’ to call out Lee Anderson’s Islamophobia (PA)

Asked about Mr Anderson’s comments during a visit to East Yorkshire, Mr Sunak said: “I’ve been very clear that what he said was wrong, it was unacceptable, and that’s why we suspended the whip.”

But, pressed on whether he considered Mr Anderson’s remarks Islamophobic, the PM simply said: “I think the most important thing is that the words were wrong, they were ill-judged, they were unacceptable.”

Earlier the PM denied the Conservative party has “Islamophobic tendencies”.

It came as Mr Anderson sought to row back on his comments, but stopped short of offering an apology over the rant.

He said: “If you are wrong, apologising is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.

“But when you think you are right, you should never apologise because to do so would be a sign of weakness.”

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.”

He also 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.”

Lee Anderson said his words ‘may have been clumsy’ after claiming Sadiq Khan is controlled by Islamists (Reuters)
Lee Anderson said his words ‘may have been clumsy’ after claiming Sadiq Khan is controlled by Islamists (Reuters)

The row erupted last Friday when, discussing pro-Palestinian protests in London, Mr Anderson said: “I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan and they’ve got control of London… He’s actually given our capital city away to his mates.”

In a slight climbdown from his initial outburst, Mr Anderson said: “The vast majority of our Muslim friends in the UK are decent, hardworking citizens who make an amazing contribution to our society and their religion should not be blamed for the actions of a tiny minority of extremists.”

After calling for the Conservatives to tackle the “moral rot” of anti-Muslim hatred in the party, Mr Khan said it was “remarkable” the PM had failed to call out “Islamophobia” directly. The mayor pointed to a statement issued by Mr Sunak which called out rising incidents of “prejudice and antisemitism”, but neglected to mention anti-Muslim hatred specifically, despite a surge since 7 October last year.

“This speaks volumes,” Mr Khan said.

Writing in the Evening Standard, Mr Khan added: “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.”

Senior Tory Tom Tugendhat came the closest to describing Mr Anderson’s comments as “anti-Muslim” and suggesting that is why he was suspended from the party. The home office minister said: “The whip was removed immediately because anti-Muslim hatred is wrong.”

Meanwhile, a Labour former minister told MPs she had to seek extra police support over the weekend due to receiving far-right abuse following “racist, Islamophobic, anti-Muslim hate” she said had been partly encouraged by Mr Anderson.

Speaking in the Commons, Dawn Butler said: “I have had to seek extra police support this weekend due to the far-right abuse that I have suffered inspired and unleashed in part by the conspiracy theory, the racist, Islamophobic, anti-Muslim hate.”

It came as Reform UK appeared to extend an invite for Mr Anderson to join the party after his suspension from the Conservatives.

The former Brexit Party, set up by Nigel Farage, said Mr Anderson speaks “for millions who are appalled by what is happening to our country”.

Richard Tice, who took over from Mr Farage as Reform’s leader, said: “Lee Anderson may have been clumsy in his precise choice of words, but his sentiments are supported by millions of British citizens, including myself.”

It is widely thought Mr Anderson will consider joining Reform to contest his Ashfield seat at the general election. Mr Farage on Saturday called for Mr Anderson to join the party and take on the Tories.

And on Monday, Mr Tice added: “Never has Westminster and the craven left-leaning establishment been so out of touch with ordinary people.

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