Sunak Refuses to Return Donation in Controversy Over Racism

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak defied pressure to return a £10 million ($12.8 million) donation to his Conservative Party from a businessman who the prime minister condemned for “racist” comments about an opposition politician.

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The row dominated Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, as Labour Party leader Keir Starmer called on the UK premier to give back the money.

“Is the prime minister proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynistic language?” Starmer asked. “What racist, woman-hating threat of violence would he have to make before the PM plucked up the courage to hand back the money?” The Scottish National Party also criticized Sunak.

Sunak responded that the donor, Frank Hester, had apologized and “that remorse should be accepted.” The Guardian quoted Hester as saying that Diane Abbott, a Labour member of Parliament, made him “want to hate all Black women” and that she “should be shot.” Hester since has said his words “had nothing to do with her gender nor color of skin.”

It’s another example of how Sunak’s attempt to shift the Tories to an election footing is being derailed by internal divisions about race and immigration. The prime minister has struggled to find a response that doesn’t alienate his MPs, especially on the right of his party.

A prominent Tory defected to the populist Reform UK party this week, after he was suspended from the Conservatives for making “unacceptable” remarks about Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

This week’s dispute overshadowed Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt’s testimony to Parliament about budget measures he unveiled last week, with tax cuts for working people the centerpiece of a program designed to win back support.

Hunt said that Hester’s remarks said comments were “racist” and “despicable,” but that the apology he made should be accepted.

“I don’t believe someone should be cancelled for comment they made in the past and for which they have apologized,” he said. “But that does not make the comments any less despicable.”

The incident brought the Conservative government into a number of delicate issues. Concern over MPs safety has grown in recent months, and ethnic minority lawmakers have for years faced a high level of abuse online.

Zarah Sultana, the youngest Muslim to be elected, said she was told that she faced the most “serious abuse and threats” of any MP. In 2017, analysis of abusive tweets in the lead up the general election showed that Abbott received 45% of all such messages.

Racism is the biggest motivator for hate crimes in the UK, according to data published by the Office for National Statistics, with 2021/2022 seeing a record 108,476 cases. That number fell 6% the following year.

Hester, along with his technology company The Phoenix Partnership, donated a combined £10.2 million to the Tories last year. Sunak said Hester’s remarks were “racist and wrong.”

But the furor has raised further questions about Sunak’s political judgment, especially over the length of time it took to condemn Hester’s alleged language. Early on Tuesday, ministers were still describing it as “unacceptable” but refusing to call it racist or sexist. At a regular briefing around midday, that was still the line at a regular Downing Street press briefing.

Then Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch broke ranks mid-afternoon, outflanking the premier by calling Hester’s reported comments racist. A spokesperson for Sunak then released a statement late Tuesday saying the same.

Former Conservative Party Chairman Chris Patten said the donation should be returned promptly. “When something blows like this, it does seem to me to be fairly open and shut,” Patten told Times Radio. “The Conservative Party doesn’t need £10 million that badly. It certainly doesn’t want to risk its reputation for being, open and diverse, in order to have a large donation.”

For the prime minister’s critics, it was further proof Sunak struggles on issues that risk angering the restless right flank of his party. The response to Hester was an echo of when former Conservative deputy chairman Lee Anderson’s accused Khan of being controlled by “Islamists.” Anderson was backed by the party before the fallout became too much and he was eventually suspended.

The Hester fallout is especially awkward for Sunak because on top of his donations to the party, parliamentary records show he gave the prime minister the use of a helicopter for a political visit at a value of £15,000.

The timing is also far from ideal.

The government is preparing to announce a new definition of extremism on Thursday, after the prime minister pledged a crackdown at a time of heightened community tensions linked to the Israel-Hamas war. Critics argue that Sunak’s struggles with Anderson and Hester point to a government that is not equipped to tackle such a sensitive issue as extremism.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Conservative MPs asked Sunak both to commit to leaving the European Convention on Human Rights and to explicitly decry the radical Islamist threat in the UK when it sets out the new language.

Meanwhile Abbott has reported Hester to the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigations Team, a unit of London’s Metropolitan Police set up following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016. Conservative MP David Amess was also fatally stabbed at a 2021 meeting in his constituency.

--With assistance from Siraj Datoo.

(Updates with Hester’s comments and Chris Patten from fourth paragraph.)

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