Lee Anderson refuses to apologise for 'Islamist' comments as he doubles down on criticism of Sadiq Khan

26 February 2024, 11:47 | Updated: 26 February 2024, 17:38

Rishi Sunak is facing a revolt for sacking Lee Anderson
Rishi Sunak is facing a revolt for sacking Lee Anderson. Picture: Getty
Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

Lee Anderson has refused to apologise for saying Sadiq Khan was 'under the control of Islamists' after Rishi Sunak said this morning said the comments were "unacceptable".

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Speaking days after he lost the Tory whip for making the comments, making him an independent MP, Mr Anderson said "you should never apologise" when "you think you are right".

The MP for Ashfield admitted his words were "clumsy" but doubled down on his criticism of the Mayor of London.

While the Prime Minister again refused to say whether Mr Anderson’s comments were Islamophobic on Monday evening.

Speaking to 5 News, Mr Sunak said: “Well I think the most important thing is the words were wrong.”

Pressed on whether Mr Anderson’s comments were made because Mr Khan is a Muslim, the Prime Minister added: “Well, I’ve been really clear that it’s important that people are careful with the words they use, particularly elected politicians, and particularly at a time when tensions are already running high and we don’t want to unnecessarily inflame things further.

“The words were wrong, they were unacceptable, and ill judged.”

It comes after the Prime Minister denied that there were any Islamophobic tendencies in the Conservative Party.

Lee Anderson
Lee Anderson. Picture: Getty

Speaking earlier this morning, Mr Sunak said: "It's incumbent on all of us... not to inflame our debates in a way that's harmful to others.

"Clearly his choice of words wasn't acceptable. Words matter, especially in the current environment."

The Transport Secretary also insisted the PM took ‘firm and decisive’ action to suspend the whip from Mr Anderson after comments he made aimed at Mr Khan.

Mark Harper told Nick Ferrari on LBC this morning that Mr Anderson’s comments, that have been labelled Islamophobic, were "wrong" and his suspension shows the PM had taken "clear and decisive" action.

Mark Harper: 'He shouldn't have said it, and it was right that he had the whip taken away'

But he sad Mr Khan’s record in London, ‘particularly on transport’ is ‘terrible’.

He refused to say whether the comments were racist or Islamophobic, saying only they were ‘wrong’.

“I’m not getting into an argument about what sort of comments they were,” said Mr Harper.

He also denied there was a wider problem of anti-Islamic sentiment within the Conservative Party.

“I fundamentally don’t agree with that,” he added.

His comments come as tensions flared yet again over the Gaza conflict with a violent clash breaking out at a takeaway in Bradford 'because the owner refused to boycott Coca-Cola.

Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists also shut down Tower Bridge in London this weekend with an intense protest over the war in Gaza.

Mr Sunak is facing a revolt for sacking Lee Anderson after Red Wall MPs briefed that they have seen waves of support for the sacked Tory following his dismissal in an Islamophobia row.

Northern Tories told The Telegraph that they have received support for Lee Anderson into their inboxes since he was sacked on Friday.

Mr Anderson was suspended from the party for accusing Sadiq Khan of being under the control of 'Islamists.'

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman also said that Islamists were in charge of the UK.

Both incidents followed chaotic scenes in Parliament when the Speaker broke with convention to allow a Labour vote on an SNP amendment on a ceasefire in Gaza. He said he made the decision based on concern for MPs' security.

in the wake of the row, Britain's largest Muslim body has called for the Conservatives to launch an investigation into "institutional Islamophobia" within its ranks.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) told Tory chairman Richard Holden that anti-Muslim bias was "on public display this week" in the party.

Read more: Deputy PM says Lee Anderson 'didn't intend to be Islamophobic' by saying that Khan was controlled by Islamists

Read more: Three female MPs issued with 'taxpayer-funded bodyguards and cars' amid growing safety concerns

Watch Again: Deputy PM Oliver Dowden joins Matthew Wright

Labour and several Conservatives have denounced Mr Anderson's words, and Mr Khan himself said the Ashfield MP's comments were "pouring fuel on the fire of anti-Muslim hatred".

In a letter to Mr Holden, MCB secretary general Zara Mohammed called for an investigation to be launched, adding: "Our view is that the Islamophobia in the party is institutional, tolerated by the leadership and seen as acceptable by great swathes of the party membership.

"Leaders - especially those in politics - have the ability to shape the agenda and a narrative, and play a role in Islamophobic hate crime, which has trebled, according to (national project) Tell Mama.

"These issues cannot - and must not - be ignored."

Guest: The language of Suella Braverman is like '1930s Germany'

Tell Mama, which tracks anti-Muslim sentiment and incidents, claims that there were 2,010 cases of Islamophobic hate between October 7 2023 and February 7 this year, compared to 600 cases for the same four-month period a year previously.

Anti-Semitic incidents also spiked over the same period, which came after the Islamist group Hamas' terrorist atrocities in Israel, and the subsequent ongoing war.

Ms Mohammed commented on the fact that Mr Anderson was only suspended came only after he refused to apologise, not after the initial remarks.

She added: "We also note that the whip was withdrawn only after there was widespread condemnation across the board, while the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet remained silent."

The letter also said Ms Braverman's Telegraph article played into antisemitic tropes and fell into a "well-trodden Islamophobic path".

The MCB - which is affiliated with more than 500 mosques, schools, and charitable associations - previously sent a dossier with 300 allegations of Tory Party Islamophobia to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in 2020.

Lee Anderson
Lee Anderson. Picture: Alamy

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden told LBC's Matthew Wright did not mean to be Islamophobic.

"I don't believe Lee Anderson is Islamophobic himself at all," he said.

But he said: "I do understand the worries that people had about it, particularly the linking to a specific individual."

Mr Dowden added: "I think words matter in politics and the way he expressed himself could cause offence to people.

"He was given the opportunity to apologise, he declined that opportunity, so we rapidly removed the whip, and I think that's the appropriate course of action to take."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said earlier that Rishi Sunak was harbouring "extremists" in his party, adding that it was right that Mr Anderson had been suspended for an "appalling racist and Islamophobic outburst".

Mohammed Amin, a former chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, told LBC that he was "very worried about the way the Conservative Party is going".

He added: "The same way that the Labour Party became frankly unsafe to Jews under Jeremy Corbyn, right now we have a Conservative Party that seems incapable of dealing with anti-Muslim bigots inside it."

A 2021 investigation into possible Islamophobia in the Conservative Party found that there was no institutional racism, although some within the party complained that Muslims had been excluded from the inquiry.