The Lee Anderson Islamophobia controversy, explained

Lee Anderson's inflammatory comments have thrust the Tory party into an Islamophobia row - here's how it unfolded.

London, UK. 6th Feb, 2024. Lee Anderson speaks at the launch of the 'Popular Conservatism' movement in London. PopCon, a new Conservative grouping in Britain and a fringe movement within the Conservative Party, aims to restore democratic accountability and champion popular conservative policies. (Credit Image: © Tejas Sandhu/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire) EDITORIAL USAGE ONLY! Not for Commercial USAGE!
Lee Anderson has been suspended from the Conservative Party over comments he made about London mayor Sadiq Khan. (PA)

The Islamophobia row involving Lee Anderson showed little sign of halting on Tuesday after several Tory MPs reportedly called for his suspension from the party to be lifted.

A number of Conservatives in the so-called 'red wall' constituencies in the Midlands and the North of England have demanded that Anderson be reinstated, the Daily Express reported.

It came as former home secretary Suella Braverman, sacked from her position last November, said the response to his controversial comments was "hysteria", while The Guardian reported that grassroots Conservatives have called Rishi Sunak a "snake".

The prime minister called Anderson's comments "unacceptable" and "wrong" but avoided saying if he believed they were Islamophobic. Sunak declared himself "living proof" that Britain is not a racist country.

In an appearance on GB News on Friday, Anderson, the MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, said he believed "Islamists" had "got control of London" and the capital's Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Watch: Lee Anderson asked if he'll join Reform Party

In a later statement after numerous calls for him to issue an apology, Anderson said: "When you think you are right you should never apologise because to do so would be a sign of weakness."

Anderson had initially been commenting on an article by Braverman in the Daily Telegraph, in which she wrote: "The truth is that the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now."

In another twist on Tuesday, Anderson refused to rule out joining Reform UK and criticised the Conservative Party for not giving him a "bit more backing".

Here's how the fallout has unfolded:

What happened?

In an appearance on GB News on Friday, Anderson said he believed "Islamists" had "got control of London" and the capital's Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan.

He said: "I don't actually believe that these Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they've got control of Khan and they've got control of London… He's actually given our capital city away to his mates."

On Saturday, Khan said that Anderson's comments were "Islamophobic", "anti-Muslim" and "racist" and said the lack of reaction by ministers "confirms to many people across the country that there’s a hierarchy when it comes to racism".

London Mayor Sadiq Khan walks on the day he gives evidence at the COVID-19 Inquiry, in London, Britain, November 27, 2023. REUTERS/Belinda Jiao
London mayor Sadiq Khan said Anderson's comments were 'anti-Muslim' and 'racist'. (Reuters)

Former chancellor Sajid Javid was one of the first senior Tory figures to condemn the comments, calling them "ridiculous".

Later that day, the party announced that the whip had been removed from Anderson.

Deputy PM refuses to call Anderson's comments Islamophobic

On the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden declined to say if he thought Anderson's remarks were Islamophobic.

He also suggested the parliamentary party would welcome Anderson back if he were to apologise for and retract his comments.

Tory peer Baroness Warsi said Dowden's "mealy mouthed evasive responses" were "a clear display that anti Muslim racism is tolerated within" her own party. Separately, she told Times Radio: "My party has slowly started to be taken over by an extreme view… Lee Anderson is really the tip of the iceberg.”

Muslim Council of Britain writes to Conservatives

On Sunday, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said it had written a letter to Conservative chairman Richard Holden to highlight “a week of inflammatory statements and Islamophobia from senior figures in the party”.

As well as pointing to Anderson's remarks, the group also raised concerns that Braverman had fallen “well-trodden Islamophobic path” by suggesting in an opinion piece for the Telegraph that "Islamists are in charge" of the UK.

Rishi Sunak speaks out

Finally addressing the row on Monday, the prime minister said: “Lee’s comments weren’t acceptable, they were wrong. And that’s why he had the whip suspended."

He also told The Times: "We’re a proud multi-ethnic democracy, one of the most successful anywhere in the world.

"I am standing here as living proof of that and it’s important that we work hard to protect that, because that’s one of the things that makes our country incredibly special."

YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND  - FEBRUARY 26: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets with apprentices at a factory, in East Yorkshire on February 26, 2024 in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. (Photo by Paul Ellis - WPA Pool / Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak finally commented on Anderson's remarks on Monday, having remained silent on the issue over the weekend. (Getty Images)

Tories defend Anderson

According to the Daily Express, a number of frustrated MPs from the Red Wall bombarded Tory party whips with messages of support for Anderson.

Tory MP for Great Grimsby, Lia Nici, told the newspaper: "Lee should absolutely get the Conservative whip back.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian said it has seen leaked WhatsApp messages from the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) group of grassroots supporters, in which it said Sunak was described as a "snake" over Anderson's suspension.

On X, formerly Twitter, former home secretary Suella Braverman, whose article in the Daily Telegraph sparked the row, wrote: "We need to urgently focus now on the big problem: how to tackle Islamist extremism in the UK.

"The hysteria in response to those calling out the crisis is one of the reasons why we’re not making progress."

Anderson says apologising would be "sign of weakness"

In a statement released via GB News on Monday, Anderson said: “If you are wrong, apologising is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. But when you think you are right you should never apologise because to do so would be a sign of weakness.”

Acknowledging that he'd made comments “that some people thought were divisive”, Anderson said: “Politics is divisive and I am just incredibly frustrated about the abject failures of the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. My words may have been clumsy but my words were borne out of sheer frustration at what is happening to our beautiful capital city.”

Speaking on GB News, Anderson refused to rule out joining the Reform UK party.

“You’ll say Lee Anderson rules out/doesn’t rule out joining the Reform party, so I’m making no comment on my future,” he said.

Criticism grows

On Monday, Starmer said Sunak “lacks the backbone” to call out Islamophobia because "he is so weak", adding: "They are divided, chaotic and if they are re-elected we are going to have five more years of this.”

Meanwhile, the MP for Brent Central, Dawn Butler, said she had to seek extra police support over the weekend due to receiving far-right abuse following “racist, Islamophobic, anti-Muslim hate” she said had been partly encouraged by Anderson.

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