Advertisement

Tory donor Frank Hester’s alleged comments racist and wrong, Downing Street says

Comments reportedly made by a major Conservative Party donor about Diane Abbott were “racist and wrong”, Downing Street has said after earlier refusing to describe them as such.

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”.

Rishi Sunak had come under pressure over the remarks as Cabinet minister Kemi Badenoch broke ranks to describe them as “racist” while Number 10 continued to resist saying whether it believed they were.

Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson has called Mr Hester’s comments racist (Daniel Leal/PA)

In a new statement issued on Tuesday evening, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “The comments allegedly made by Frank Hester were racist and wrong. He has now rightly apologised for the offence caused and where remorse is shown it should be accepted.

“The Prime Minister is clear there is no place for racism in public life and as the first British-Asian Prime Minister leading one of the most ethnically diverse Cabinets in our history, the UK is living proof of that fact.”

It comes as the Guardian reported Mr Hester, who has donated £10 million to the Tories in the past year, had also asked if there was “no room for the Indians” and said he made “a lot of jokes about racism” in a staff meeting.

The 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”.

Downing Street earlier said the reported remarks about Ms Abbott were “unacceptable” but would not describe them as racist.

“I don’t have anything to add beyond what minister (Graham) Stuart said this morning,” Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said when asked on Tuesday morning.

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

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.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride argued that the reported words were not “gender-based or race-based”, adding: “He has apologised and I think we need to move on from that.”

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

As recently as Tuesday afternoon, a No 10 spokeswoman had declined to “get into private conversations” when pressed on whether Mr Sunak had spoken to Mr Hester to find out whether he uttered the remarks.

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.

Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott described the comments as ‘frightening’ (PA)

Police are understood to have been contacted about the remarks, with Scotland Yard saying officers from its Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team were in touch with an MP about a report in the Guardian, which broke the story.

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.”

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

The Conservative Party has been approached for comment on whether the funds will be sent back.

The Guardian reported that Mr Hester 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.

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

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

“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 …

Sir Keir Starmer
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Conservatives should return Mr Hester’s donations (Ian West/PA)

“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.

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

In a statement posted on X on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Hester said he believed “that hatred of others based on race, religion, gender, sexuality or geography is odious and disgusting and that racism – in particular – is a poison that has no place in public life.”

He added: “The UK benefits immensely from the rich diversity of people – like my parents – who had roots in another land, religion and culture. We should celebrate those differences which have made us the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy.

“And we should have the confidence to discuss our differences openly and even playfully without seeking to cause offence.”