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

25 February 2024, 11:29

Oliver Dowden said Lee Anderson 'didn't mean to be Islamophobic'
Oliver Dowden said Lee Anderson 'didn't mean to be Islamophobic'. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

The Deputy Prime Minister has told LBC that Lee Anderson did not mean to be Islamophobic when he said that Sadiq Khan was "controlled by Islamists".

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Mr Anderson, the former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, was suspended on Saturday after refusing to apologise for saying that Islamists had "got control" of Mr Khan and were in charge of London. He was responding to a claim by former Home Secretary Suella Braverman that Islamists were running Britain.

Deputy PM Oliver Dowden told LBC's Matthew Wright: "I don't believe that Lee intended it to be Islamophobic. I don't believe Lee Anderson is Islamophobic himself at all."

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."

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It comes after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that Rishi Sunak was harbouring "extremists" in his party.

Sir Keir said the fact that Mr Anderson used to be the Conservative Party's deputy chairman reflected badly on the Prime Minister's judgement.

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Lee Anderson
Lee Anderson. Picture: Alamy

Sir Keir said that it was right that Ashfield MP Mr Anderson had been suspended for an "appalling racist and Islamophobic outburst", but called for Mr Sunak "to get a grip and take on the extremists in his party".

He added: "But what does it say about the prime minister's judgement that he made Lee Anderson deputy chairman of his party?"

Labour had also earlier called for former PM Liz Truss to lose the Conservative whip for claiming she had been "sabotaged" by "the deep state" in a conversation with Steve Bannon, and failing to respond when the former Donald Trump adviser called Tommy Robinson a "hero".

Sir Keir added: "Whether it is Liz Truss staying silent on Tommy Robinson or Suella Braverman's extreme rhetoric, Rishi Sunak's weakness means Tory MPs can act with impunity.

"This isn't just embarrassing for the Conservative party, it emboldens the worst forces in our politics."

Pressure had been growing on the Conservatives to act as Mr Anderson's comments were criticised by Labour and Tories. Mr Khan himself said Mr Anderson's comments sent the message that Muslims were "fair game". Conservative former Cabinet minister Sir Sajid Javid said the comments were "ridiculous".

Mohammed Amin, a former longstanding member of the Conservatives who resigned when Boris Johnson became leader in 2019, said he thought his former party was "incapable" of ridding itself of its Islamophobic elements.

He told LBC's Matthew Wright: "We need healthy political parties on all parts of the left-right spectrum, healthy parties that people of all religious beliefs and all ethnic backgrounds are willing to join, because ethnic minorities are not automatically left-wing or right-wing."

Mr Amin added: "As someone who cares about our democracy, I’m very worried about the way the Conservative Party is going. 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."

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Lisa Nandy, a Labour shadow Cabinet member, told Matthew that the Conservatives were making divisions worse.

She told Matthew: "At the very highest levels of the Conservative Party, you've got people stoking and inciting this... anger and hate and division, rather than trying to calm the situation down and stand for something better.

"There are lots of things that Labour will need to fix if we're trusted to with government in a few months time. But one of the biggest of all is our political discourse in this country and the poison that's allowed to be allowed to creep into it."

Sangita Myska debates with caller who concurs with Lee Anderson's comments about Sadiq Khan and London

Mr Sunak earlier released his own statement saying that Britain's voters should not" fall into polarised camps who hate each other".

It came amid a debate about the safety of MPs, after pro-Palestine protesters were accused of trying to intimidate politicians ahead of a vote on backing a ceasefire in Gaza.

Three female MPs have been given bodyguards from a private security company as well as chauffeur-driven cars because of concerns for their safety.

Mr Sunak said: "The events of recent weeks are but the latest in an emerging pattern which should not be tolerated.

"Legitimate protests hijacked by extremists to promote and glorify terrorism, elected representatives verbally threatened and physically, violently targeted and antisemitic tropes beamed onto our own parliament building."

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle broke with convention allowed a vote on a Labour amendment to an SNP motion, citing concerns about MPs' security.

Mr Sunak said: "And in parliament this week a very dangerous signal was sent that this sort of intimidation works. It is toxic for our society and our politics and is an affront to the liberties and values we hold dear here in Britain."

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Labour shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth earlier wrote to the Prime Minister to say that the "egregious" remark"cannot go unchecked or unchallenged".

Ms Truss had used a talk at the Conservative Political Action Conference (Cpac) in the US to claim her efforts to cut taxes were "sabotaged" by the "administrative state and the deep state".

The former prime minister, whose disastrous mini-budget in 2022 unleashed economic chaos, later took part in an interview with Steve Bannon and remained silent as he hailed far-right figure Tommy Robinson a "hero."

She was criticised for not challenging the comment by senior Tory MP Sir Sajid Javid, who wrote in a post on X: "I'd hope every MP would confront such a statement head on. Liz should really know better."

Ms Truss had claimed in her speech that Conservatives are "now operating in what is a hostile environment" and that "left-wing elites" will be "aided and abetted by our enemies in China, Iran and Russia".

Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss
Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss. Picture: Alamy

Interviewed by Mr Bannon after her speech, she also said she was willing to work with Nigel Farage to change the Conservative Party.

And she suggested the former Donald Trump adviser, who is facing fraud charges in New York, could "come over to Britain and sort out Britain".

In his letter to Mr Sunak, Mr Ashworth wrote: "For a senior politician to engage in spreading such blatant conspiracy theories is incredibly damaging to our democracy, our institutions and social cohesion."

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture: Alamy

He added: "For a former prime minister to make such remarks, while on an international visit to a country with whom the UK shares a special relationship which upholds liberal values is an unforgivable lowering of the office of prime minister which lessens the United Kingdom's standing in the world and needs to be acted upon.

Ms Truss resigned in October 2022 after the fallout from her botched financial statement, becoming the country's shortest-serving prime minister after just 49 days in office.

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Her speech at Cpac saw her sharing a stage with Mr Trump, whose presidential bid she all but directly endorsed, and Reform UK founder and former Ukip leader Mr Farage.

She said: "Conservatives are now operating in what is now a hostile environment and we essentially need a bigger bazooka."

She claimed that the “catastrophic reaction” to the budget that cost her her job had come from the “usual suspects” in both the media and the corporate world, as well as government, the Office of Budget Responsibility and the Bank of England.

She accused “the left” of undermining the Conservative-led British government because they “did not accept that they lost at the ballot box”.

“They’ve been weaponising our court system to stop us contorting illegal immigrants, they’ve been using the administrative state to make sure that conservative policies are faulted and they’ve been pushing their woke agenda through our schools, through our campuses, and even in our corporations,” she said.

Ms Truss also took aim at "Chinos" - conservatives in name only - saying: "It's people who think 'I want to be popular, I don't want to upset people, I don't want to look like a mean person, I want to attend nice dinner parties in London or Washington DC, I want my friends to like me, I don't want to cause trouble'.

"What those people are doing is they are compromising, and they are triangulating, and they are losing the argument."