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UK’s Tories tear themselves apart over Islamophobia

UK’s Tories tear themselves apart over Islamophobia

UK’s Tories tear themselves apart over Islamophobia

LONDON — Britain’s Conservatives have yet another civil war on their hands.

The governing party has spent much of the past week publicly agonizing about anti-Muslim prejudice — and the bitter row shows no signs of subsiding.

Lee Anderson, the party’s former deputy chairman — and once Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s favorite media Rottweiler — sparked a furious internal debate by claiming “Islamists” have “got control” of London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

The comments about the Labour mayor — who is the highest-profile Muslim politician in the U.K. and routinely receives death threats — drew a fierce backlash, and have dominated the week in Westminster.

The Conservatives suspended Anderson after he refused to apologize, while Khan called the comments “Islamophobic, anti-Muslim and racist.”

But some prominent Tories have rallied around the MP regardless — while government ministers have not been vehement in their condemnation.

Several Conservative backbenchers told the right-leaning Daily Express newspaper — on the record — that Anderson should get the Tory whip back. Others have privately voiced concerns about his treatment, including in WhatsApp messages leaked to the press.

In a series of defiant interviews Tuesday, Anderson doubled down. He said he had received “lots of support privately in WhatsApp groups and messages” from Conservative MPs since his suspension.

“I’ve got an email pinging in every 10 seconds in support, from not just my constituents, from all around the country. I think I’m on the right side of the argument on this — and history will judge me,” Anderson told ITV News.

Indeed, Anderson — elected in 2019 after defecting from Labour — may be tapping into wider Tory sentiment.

An Opinium poll of Conservative Party members released Wednesday by the advocacy group Hope not Hate found that more than half (58 percent) believe Islam is a “threat to the British way of life.” A further 40 percent of members said they have a “negative” view of Muslims.

When it comes to the wider public, however, Conservative members — overwhelmingly older and whiter than Brits in general — are not representative. A snap YouGov poll after Anderson’s suspension found that many more Brits think the Conservatives were right to suspend him than wrong.

The Conservatives suspended Lee Anderson, the party’s former deputy chairman, after he refused to apologize | Leon Neal/Getty Images

“It will hurt the Conservative Party more than it helps, especially in London. And it will broadly hurt them in blue wall places,” said Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank that examines heritage and diversity. (The term “blue wall” is shorthand for southern England seats that tend to vote Conservative but now look winnable by the Liberal Democrats.)

Katwala added, however, that the issue could be a boon for Reform U.K., the challenger populist party set up by Brexiteer Nigel Farage aiming to peel away voters from the Conservatives’ right flank. Anderson has publicly flirted with joining Reform, but says he has no intention of doing so.

A party gripped

The row has resurrected a long-dormant Tory debate about the term “Islamophobia,” which is not officially defined in the U.K. Labour leader Keir Starmer has accused the Conservatives of failing to tackle the issue and of harboring “extremists” in the party.

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, a Conservative rising star, has argued the government instead prefers the term “anti-Muslim hatred” — and argued that those pushing for an official definition of Islamophobia risked creating “a blasphemy law via the back door.”

She added on social network X: “In this country, we have a proud tradition of religious freedom AND the freedom to criticize religion.”

Some Conservatives were swift to condemn Anderson. Business Minister Nus Ghani called his comments “foolish and dangerous” — while Home Office Minister Tom Tugendhat surpassed most at the top of his party in describing the comments as “anti-Muslim.”

UK NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

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For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Anderson is far from the first senior Conservative to stoke controversy with comments on Islam — and the war in Gaza appears to be charging the current debate.

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, seen as a key challenger to Sunak on the right, was criticized last week for writing that the “Islamists, the extremists and the anti-Semites are in charge now.” She was referring to the impact of pro-Palestinian protests which have taken place most weeks in the U.K. since the Israel-Hamas war first flared last October.

During a panel event in Washington last week, short-lived former PM Liz Truss did not challenge U.S. firebrand Steve Bannon during a panel discussion in which he described Tommy Robinson — a British nationalist activist with a history of anti-Muslim comments — as a “hero.”

In a heated exchange during prime minister’s questions Wednesday, Starmer pressed Sunak on Truss’ stateside appearance. Sunak demurred, instead attacking Starmer for having “sat there as anti-semitism ran rife through his party” under its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

“The parties are obsessed with going to the other parties and telling them about their problems — but the only useful thing you can do is sort out your party’s problem,” Katwala said.

“Of course, you shouldn’t be accusing a Muslim mayor of something that’s not true and is a smear about him … But actually, we’ve all got work to do because this boundary of what is anti-Muslim prejudice or what is Islamophobia is a much less clear thing,” he added.

“What we really could do with is a bit of leadership, instead of a party battle — having the public conversation about how to draw that line.”

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Anneliese Dodds,Elections,History,Islam,Israel,Israel-Hamas war,Jeremy Corbyn,Keir Starmer,Kemi Badenoch,Lee Anderson,Liz Truss,Mayors,Media,Nigel Farage,Rehman Chishti,Rights,Rishi Sunak,Sadiq Khan,Steve Bannon,Suella Braverman,Tanks,Tommy Robinson,United Kingdom

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