Oliver Dowden says he does not believe Anderson 'intended' to be Islamophobic

Former deputy party chairman Lee Anderson lost the Tory whip after refusing to apologise for the remarks on ‘Islamists’.

Mr Anderson lost the Tory whip on Saturday for refusing to apologise after he said Labour London mayor Mr Khan had “given our capital city away to his mates”

Deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden has said he does not believe Lee Anderson “intended” to be Islamophobic when he claimed “Islamists” had “got control” of London and its mayor Sadiq Khan.

Mr Anderson, a former deputy party chairman, was suspended from the Conservative Party on Saturday after refusing to apologise for the remarks he made during an appearance on GB News.

Mr Dowden said Mr Anderson’s remarks were “wrong” but repeatedly refused to say whether he thinks the comments were racist.

He told ITV News: “I don’t believe that Lee Anderson intended it to be Islamophobic. I understand people’s concerns about it.”

He continued: “The reason why the prime minister took action is because words matter and that was not an appropriate use of words.”

Mr Dowden told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme Mr Anderson would have kept the Tory whip if he had apologised over the comments.

There has also been criticism of remarks by former home secretary Suella Braverman, who said an “Islamist mob” was threatening to take over society, and former prime minister Liz Truss, who failed to call out the far right leader Tommy Robinson when an interviewer called him a “hero'”.

Labour has accused the prime minister of failing to stand up to extremists in his party while several senior Conservatives have condemned Mr Anderson’s remarks.

The party called on Rishi Sunak to confirm that no “deal or undertakings” have been offered to Lee Anderson that would see him have the Tory whip returned.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, shadow Cabinet Office minister Jonathan Ashworth said he was “concerned to see your Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden tell GB News this morning that he ‘certainly wouldn’t rule that out’ when asked if Mr Anderson could have the whip returned.”

He said Mr Dowden’s comments suggested the “withdrawal of the whip was merely a temporary measure taken in response to media criticism, and that the possibility of Mr Anderson being allowed back into the Tory Party is being kept on the table.”

Oliver Dowden speaking to ITV News. / Credit: ITV News

Mr Sunak has not yet commented publicly on Mr Anderson’s remarks. Mr Khan said the prime minster’s “silence” amounts to “tacit endorsement” of Islamophobia.

The London mayor pressed Mr Sunak to stop what he described as “moral rot” in the Conservative Party after the comments prompted an outcry.

“Although the whip has been belatedly withdrawn from Lee Anderson, the silence from Rishi Sunak and the Cabinet and tacit endorsement of these vile remarks via Conservative briefings can’t help but lead to the conclusion that Muslims are fair game as far as the Conservative Party is concerned,” Mr Khan said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the prime minister of harbouring “extremists” in the party

Despite Mr Anderson losing the whip, Sir Keir said Mr Sunak’s “weakness” allows MPs to “act with impunity”.

Conservative peer Baroness Warsi described Mr Dowden’s comments on Sunday’s media round as “disturbing, mealy-mouthed” and “evasive”, and claimed they demonstrated that “anti-Muslim racism is tolerated” by the Tories.

Baroness Warsi, who has criticised her party’s handling of Islamophobia allegations in the past, said: “When we can’t even call out the obvious, when it’s so blatant and can’t find the words to condemn we have lost all authority on being anti racist.

“No ifs no buts no caveats – we rightly don’t allow Labour to acquiesce in antisemitism why do we think we can on Islamophobia.

“We must end this hierarchy of racism and stop the hypocrisy.”

Mr Anderson’s claim has been denounced as “foolish and dangerous” by business minister Nus Ghani and “ridiculous” by senior Tory backbencher Sir Sajid Javid.

Senior backbencher Robert Buckland told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Mr Anderson’s remarks were “racist” and “repugnant”, and that “proper Conservatives” want to bring the country together.

The Muslim Council of Britain has written to the chairman of the Conservative Party demanding an investigation into “structural Islamophobia” in the party.

In a letter to Richard Holden, the council said it welcomes the removal of the whip from Mr Anderson but alleged Islamophobia “persists” in the party. The letter also criticised the Conservatives for removing the whip from Mr Anderson only after he refused to apologise.

Rishi Sunak with Lee Anderson / Credit: Jacob King/PA

Mr Anderson said in a statement later: “Following a call with the Chief Whip, I understand the difficult position that I have put both he and the Prime Minister in with regard to my comments.

“I fully accept that they had no option but to suspend the whip in these circumstances.

“However, I will continue to support the government’s efforts to call out extremism in all its forms – be that antisemitism or Islamophobia.”

Mr Anderson, a standard bearer for the Tory right, will now sit as an Independent unless he defects to another party that chooses to offer him backing.

Mr Anderson was deputy chairman of the Tory Party until resigning in January to rebel against Mr Sunak’s legislation to revive the stalled plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda.

He was one of 58 Conservatives to vote in favour of an amendment that sought to ensure UK and international law cannot be used to prevent or delay a person being sent to Kigali under the scheme.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has said the remarks were Islamophobic / Credit: PA

Mr Anderson has served since 2019 as MP for Ashfield, one of the previously Labour seats in the so-called red wall where voters switched to the Tories post-Brexit to give Boris Johnson his landslide victory.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “An investigation and subsequent independent review, both conducted over several years by Professor Swaran Singh, found no evidence of institutional racism in the Conservative Party.”

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