Sunak says no Islamophobia issues in Tory party despite Anderson remarks

<span>Lee Anderson lost the Conservative whip on Saturday after his comments about Sadiq Khan.</span><span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Lee Anderson lost the Conservative whip on Saturday after his comments about Sadiq Khan.Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Rishi Sunak has denied that the Conservative party has a problem with Islamophobia after Lee Anderson’s comments about Sadiq Khan, continuing to label them as “wrong” rather than prejudiced.

During a round of BBC local radio interviews to promote spending moved from HS2 to local transport projects, the prime minister was quizzed on Anderson’s claim that the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, was controlled by Islamists, remarks for which he lost the Conservative whip.

Asked on Radio York if his party had Islamophobic tendencies, he replied: “No, of course it doesn’t. And I think it’s incumbent on all of us, especially those elected to parliament, not to inflame our debates in a way that’s harmful to others.”

Speaking to Radio Humberside, Sunak rejected the idea that the Conservatives used a de facto hierarchy of racism in which antisemitism was condemned but Islamophobia was allowed to run unchecked.

“I believe racism or prejudice of any kind is completely unacceptable, and we must stamp it out,” Sunak said, not mentioning the specific idea of anti-Muslim prejudice.

Related: Muslim group calls for Tory inquiry into party’s ‘structural Islamophobia’

In comments that run notably contrary to those of Anderson, the former Tory party vice-chair, and Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, who argued last week that Islamists were now “in charge”, Sunak said the UK was the “most successful multi-ethnic democracy in the world”.

He went on: “That’s because we have a way of doing these things, of respecting everyone, and at the same time ensuring that everyone integrates into our community and subscribes to a common set of British values.

“And that’s why, as I said, racism or prejudice of any kind is completely unacceptable.”

Sunak’s refusal to engage with the specific idea of anti-Muslim prejudice – which follows the refusal of Mark Harper, the transport secretary, in his own round of media interviews on Monday morning, to say whether Anderson had been racist – is likely to increase concern among some Tories.

Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative peer who was a cabinet minister in David Cameron’s government, told the Guardian on Sunday that Sunak needed to “find the language” to “call Islamophobia Islamophobia”.

“What is it about the prime minister that he can’t even call out anti-Muslim racism and anti-Muslim bigotry? Why can’t he just use those words?” she said.

Asked by Sky News whether Anderson’s description of Khan, including the claim he had “given our capital city away to his mates”, was motivated by prejudice against the mayor, who is Muslim, Harper refused to say.

“Well, it was wrong,” he said. “And I’m not going to get into arguing about the rights and wrongs. What he said was wrong, and in my book, wrong is a strong word.”

Harper indicated it was possible Anderson, who lost the Conservative whip on Saturday after his comments the previous evening on GB News, could return to the Tory fold if he apologised.

“That’s not a matter for me, that’s a matter for the chief whip,” Harper said. “I’ve been chief whip in the past. I’m not going to tell the chief whip how to do his job.”

He added: “[Anderson] said things about Sadiq Khan that weren’t true and that were quite wrong to say. He was given the opportunity to retract those comments and to apologise for them. He didn’t do so, so very clear, decisive leadership was taken and the whip has been removed really from him.”

Asked what message it would send to British Muslims if Anderson was given back the whip, Harper added: “I think … the firm and decisive leadership that took the whip away from him very quickly, when he refused to retract and apologise, sends a very strong message that we don’t tolerate people saying such things in the Conservative party.”