Labour rattled by Galloway win as Sadiq Khan slams PM over racist ‘poison’

<span>Rishi Sunak outside 10 Downing Street last week.</span><span>Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA</span>
Rishi Sunak outside 10 Downing Street last week.Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

Sadiq Khan has condemned Rishi Sunak for failing to call out “racist, anti-Muslim and Islamophobic” remarks by a senior Tory MP, following the prime minister’s Downing Street address in which he criticised political extremists.

In a blunt response to Sunak’s unusual intervention, the London mayor said the prime minister had still not fully addressed the nature of the remarks made by former Tory vice-chair Lee Anderson, who said Islamists had “got control” of Khan and London. Khan, one of the most powerful Muslims in public life, warned that the past few weeks had seen “a concerted and growing attempt by some to degrade and humiliate minorities for political and electoral gain”.

This follows another fractious week, in which George Galloway won the Rochdale byelection after a bitter contest. Following the result, the prime minister made an impromptu speech on Friday night stating that democracy was under attack and criticising voters for backing Galloway – whose pitch was focused on Gaza and heavy criticism of Israel.

However, Khan said Sunak and his team had still not fully addressed the remarks made by Anderson last month. While the Ashfield MP was suspended from the Tory party, ministers have refused to say the remarks amounted to Islamophobia. “We are a week on from the racist, anti-Muslim and Islamophobic remarks made by a senior Tory MP,” Khan told a London Labour conference last night. “The prime minister has failed to condemn them for what they are – even as he stood outside No 10 and spoke out against extremism – and neither has anybody around him.

“What we are witnessing is a concerted and growing attempt by some to degrade and humiliate minorities for political and electoral gain. We have been here before – in 2016, when the Tories waged a disgraceful campaign against me, against us. We cannot let them try it again.. As the poison of antisemitism and Islamophobia continues to infect our politics, now more than ever, we need to display our best values rather than our worst fears.”

The Conservatives received further criticism after reports that Anderson, who has refused to apologise for his comments about Khan, appeared with former prime minister Liz Truss at a party fundraiser in Nottinghamshire on Friday. Many Tory MPs suspect Anderson is planning to defect to Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit party.

Jonathan Ashworth, shadow paymaster general, said it “beggars belief” that Anderson continues to attend Tory party events. “Given that Rishi Sunak deems Mr Anderson unfit to be a Tory MP, he now needs to bar him from fundraising for the Tory party,” he said. “Unless he takes action, Rishi Sunak will again be exposed as weaker than ever, and out of control of his chaotic, divided party.”

It may be that they don’t have the votes to win seats, but as we always see, when it comes to it, people panic

Labour MP

Meanwhile, Galloway’s victory in Rochdale has caused nervousness among many Labour MPs. Some are already under local pressure to strengthen their criticism of Israel. While many see Galloway as a unique character with a track record of by-election victories, some believe a coalition of Muslim and leftwing voters concerned about Labour’s stance on Gaza could cost the party seats.

A slate of independent candidates to run against those Labour MPs who failed to back a Gaza ceasefire in a vote last year is being drawn up, with the first tranche of names set to be announced soon.

While few of those who stand will have a chance of winning a seat, some Labour MPs are concerned that Keir Starmer’s team are underestimating the threat posed by such candidates, because they could take Labour votes and let in the Tories in tight contests. There are also concerns about their impact on party management. “It may be that they don’t have the votes to win seats, but ... when it comes to it, people panic,” said one Labour MP.

The row comes as Khan is warning that his chances of claiming another term as London mayor have been exaggerated by polls suggesting he has a significant lead over Susan Hall, the Tory candidate. His team believes the impact of the switch to a first-past-the-post system, as well as changes to voter ID that they believe will suppress the Labour vote, will effectively erase the 5% winning margin Khan enjoyed at his last election.

He said last night that he was in what he believed was the toughest contest of his political life. “With no second preferences, the choice is between me and the most divisive, hard-right candidate the Tories have ever put up in London,” he said.