People may say racist things but that doesn’t make them racists, minister says in storm over Tory donor’s remarks

13 March 2024, 08:19 | Updated: 13 March 2024, 08:23

Frank Hester is alleged to have said that Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women”
Frank Hester is alleged to have said that Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women”. Picture: Alamy/LBC

By Asher McShane

A wealthy Tory donor condemned for “racism” against Diane Abbott may have made a 'racist' remark but is not a racist, a minister told LBC this morning.

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Frank Hester is alleged to have said that Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot.”

Post office minister Kevin Hollinrake this morning told LBC Mr Hester’s comments were a “mistake” and “racist.”

But he said Mr Hester himself was not a racist. Mr Hollinrake told Tom Swarbrick: “He’s apologised for what he’s said. Clearly to judge somebody’s character by their skin colour is the wrong thing to do, that’s why he’s apologised. People make mistakes.

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Kevin Hollinrake defends Tory donor's apology over 'racist comments' towards Diane Abbott

“He accepts his comments were wrong, and they were racist, and he’s apologised for them. I don’t think that means Mr Hester is a racist.

“If you say racist things and don’t apologise for them that makes you racist but if you say something racist and then apologise that’s a different thing I think.

“We all come across people at times who say racist things but are not racist.”

In further comments Mr Hollinrake said the Tories would be prepared to take another £10 million from him.

Kevin Hollinrake told LBC this morning that "People make mistakes"
Kevin Hollinrake told LBC this morning that "People make mistakes". Picture: LBC

Asked in an intervier if the Tories would take another £10 million from Mr Hester, Mr Hollinrake said: “On the basis that we don’t believe Mr Hester is racist yes.”

Rishi Sunak is facing calls to hand back the £10 million given to the Conservative Party after he condemned as "racist and wrong" comments reportedly made by the major Tory backer who donated the money.

The Prime Minister had come under pressure over the remarks as Cabinet minister Kemi Badenoch broke ranks to say they were racist while Downing Street continued to refuse to describe them as such.

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 condemned the remarks as "racist and wrong"
The prime minister condemned the remarks as "racist and wrong". Picture: Alamy

"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."

Mr Sunak faces a grilling by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during Prime Minister's Questions later on Wednesday after the fallout intensified on Tuesday night following a Guardian report of further comments allegedly made by Mr Hester.

According to the paper, Mr Hester, the chief executive of healthcare software firm The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), asked if there was "no room for the Indians" and suggested staff climb on a train roof during a crowded meeting.

He has admitted making "rude" comments about Ms Abbott, but claimed they had "nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin".

The PM's political opponents are demanding that the £10 million donated by Mr Hester to the Conservative Party over the past year is returned.

Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said the Conservatives "must apologise unequivocally to Diane Abbott, pay back these donations and root out the extreme views and prejudice which appears to be tolerated within the party."

Ministers sent out on Tuesday's morning media round had defended Mr Hester while Number 10 said the reported remarks about Ms Abbott were "unacceptable", but would not describe them as racist.

But, in a sign of divisions within the Tory Party over the issue, Business Secretary Ms Badenoch became the first member of Cabinet to call out Mr Hester's alleged words as racist on Tuesday afternoon.

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.

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.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats branded Mr Hester's alleged remarks as "clearly racist and abhorrent" and have both urged the Tories to return the money he donated to the party.

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

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".

"He wishes to make it clear that he regards racism as a poison which has no place in public life," the statement said.

In a statement posted on X on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Hester said: "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."