British minister Nadhim Zahawi has urged a probe into claims by a fellow Conservative MP that she lost her ministerial role because of her ‘Muslimness’, piling further pressure on the government.
Nusrat Ghani, 49, was sacked as a transport minister in 2020, and told the Sunday Times that a whip said her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” at a meeting in Downing Street.
“I was told that at the reshuffle meeting in Downing Street that ‘Muslimness’ was raised as an ‘issue’, that my ‘Muslim woman minister’ status was making colleagues uncomfortable,” the paper quoted Ghani as saying. “I will not pretend that this hasn’t shaken my faith in the party and I have at times seriously considered whether to continue as an MP (member of parliament).”
Chief whip Mark Spencer, whose role it is to keep MPs on board with the government’s agenda, took the unusual step of identifying himself as the person at the centre of the claims, and denied the allegations.
“These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory,” he wrote on Twitter.
“I have never used those words attributed to me. It is disappointing that when this issue was raised before Ms Ghani declined to refer the matter to the Conservative Party for a formal investigation,” he added.
Ghani said in response that the Conservative Party complaint process was “very clearly not appropriate” because her dismissal related to her position in the government, rather than in the party.
“Now is not the time I would have chosen for this to come out, and I have pursued every avenue and process I thought available to me, but many people have known what happened,” she added in a statement.
The government whips are in the spotlight at the moment after they were accused by Tory MP William Wragg of “blackmailing” critics of under-fire Prime Minister Boris Johnson in order to prevent them from trying to oust him.
Johnson’s office said that the prime minister was aware of the claims at the time, and that he had invited her to make a formal complaint.
“After being made aware of these extremely serious claims, the Prime Minister met with Nusrat Ghani to discuss them,” said a Downing Street spokesperson. “He then wrote to her expressing his serious concern and inviting her to begin a formal complaint process. She did not subsequently do so. The Conservative Party does not tolerate prejudice or discrimination of any kind.”
Ghani, vice-chairwoman of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, told the paper that “it was like being punched in the stomach. I felt humiliated and powerless”.
She said she remained quiet for fear of being “ostracised by colleagues”.
The vaccines minister, Zahawi, has demanded an investigation.
“There is no place for Islamophobia or any form of racism in our @Conservatives party,” he tweeted, calling Ghani a “friend, a colleague & a brilliant parliamentarian”.
“This has to be investigated properly and racism rooted out,” he added.
The justice minister, Dominic Raab, called it a “very serious claim” but told BBC’s Sunday Morning that there would only likely be an investigation if Ghani made a formal complaint.
Former equality and human rights commissioner Swaran Singh carried out an inquiry into claims of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party two years ago.
He analysed 727 separate incidents as recorded between 2015 and 2020 and found no evidence of “institutional Islamophobia”, but criticised senior Tory figures, including now Prime Minister Johnson.
That report led Johnson to issue a qualified apology for any offence caused by his past remarks about Islam, including a newspaper column in which he referred to women wearing burqas as “going around looking like letterboxes”.
The main opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said the Conservatives must investigate Ghani’s account immediately.
“This is shocking to read,” he said on Twitter.
Ghani’s comments about the whips’ behaviour echoed allegations last week from another senior Conservative, William Wragg, that some of his colleagues had faced intimidation and blackmail because of their desire to topple Johnson.
He has told the Daily Telegraph that he would meet the police early next week to discuss his allegations.
Johnson has said he had neither seen nor heard any evidence to support Wragg’s claims.
His office has said it would look at any such evidence “very carefully”.
Johnson, who in 2019 won his party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years, is fighting to shore up his authority after the “partygate” scandals, which followed criticism of the government’s handling of a corruption row and other missteps.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is expected to deliver a report into the parties next week, with many Conservative lawmakers saying they will await her findings before deciding whether they will take action to topple Johnson.
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