Ministers refuse to condemn Tory donor Frank Hester’s ‘hate all black women’ remarks as racist

Two ministers have refused to condemn remarks allegedly made by a top Tory donor about Diane Abbott – including that she made him “want to hate all black women” – as racist.

Frank Hester, the chief executive of The Phoenix Partnership (TPP) who donated £10m to the Conservative Party last year, reportedly made a series of incendiary comments about the MP during a business meeting in 2019, which have been described by critics as racist.

The businessman is alleged to have said, while speaking about a female executive from another company: “It’s like trying not to be racist but you see Diane Abbott on the TV, and you’re just like… you just want to hate all black women because she’s there.

“And I don’t hate all black women at all, but I think she should be shot. (The executive) and Diane Abbott need to be shot.”

But Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, insisted on Tuesday that Mr Hester’s alleged comments were not “gender-based or race-based”. He said it was “clear” that the remarks were “inappropriate”, but added: “He has apologised, and I think we need to move on from that”.

Energy security minister Graham Stuart also said he would “hesitate” to describe Mr Hester’s comments as racist, as he warned against “cancelling” political donors. He added that the businessman’s remarks were “clearly reprehensible” but that the comments were “half a decade ago”.

Diane Abbott served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet (PA Wire)
Diane Abbott served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet (PA Wire)

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Stuart said: “He has apologised profusely and rightly, and tried to reach out to Diane Abbott specifically to apologise to her. It was half a decade ago, clearly those comments were wrong, and he’s right to apologise. And I support him in doing so.”

Asked on Times Radio whether he accepted the comments were racist, he said: “I find it absolutely unacceptable. I hesitate to stick that particular label on it.”

He added: “I’m hesitating to call it that because I don’t like to sit in judgment on these things. It was clearly a ridiculous thing to say, he’s rightly apologised for it and here’s a man who’s supporting the most diverse cabinet we’ve ever had under this Conservative Party. We’ve got a Hindu Prime Minister and he’s our biggest donor, so I don’t think this is a man who is a racist.”

Mr Hester has admitted making “rude” comments about Ms Abbott but said they had “nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

The Guardian reported that Mr Hester’s remarks about Ms Abbott – the first black woman elected to Parliament – were likely to have been made when she was shadow home secretary under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Tory opponents, including Labour leader Keir Starmer, have seized on the businessman’s remarks and urged the governing party to give back the cash Mr Hester and his company have donated.

The energy security minister, left, refused to call the comments ‘racist’ (AP)
The energy security minister, left, refused to call the comments ‘racist’ (AP)

But Mr Stuart said the Tories would not stop people donating to the party “because they said something intemperate and wrong in their past”.

He told Sky News: “We can’t cancel anybody from participation in public life, or indeed donating to parties, because they said something intemperate and wrong in their past.

“It’s not my decision, but I do welcome those who support the Conservative Party.”

Quizzed on whether he would welcome donations from people who had made similar comments, he said: “I’m saying that I welcome those who contribute and I’m not here to sit in judgment on one remark.”

Responding to Mr Stuarts’ comments, Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “Graham Stuart’s refusal to call out these racist comments was simply jaw-dropping.

“The Conservative party has flat out refused to return these donations despite these comments being inexcusable. How low can you go?

Frank Hester donated £10m to the Conservative party in 2023 (TPP/Youtube)
Frank Hester donated £10m to the Conservative party in 2023 (TPP/Youtube)

“Rishi Sunak can bunker down and hide in Downing Street as long as he wants but every day he doesn’t return this money is another damning blow to the Conservative party’s credibility.”

Labour MP Sarah Jones also told Sky News: “The comments were clearly racist and abhorrent, and of course the Conservative Party should be very quick to say these comments were racist and abhorrent, and of course we don’t want money from this kind of person.

“You can tell a lot about somebody from the company they keep, and this has come to light and the Conservatives need to act swiftly to reassure everyone in the country that they know the difference between right and wrong, that they understand when racism is there and when it’s not, and that they are willing to take action when they see it.”

She added: “The Conservative Party needs to respond appropriately and the weak response we have had yesterday from them isn’t good enough.

“Rishi Sunak, we know, is a weak leader. We know he won’t stand up to his own people in his own backbenches, but surely he knows the difference between right and wrong and surely today he will act and give that money back.”

Mr Hester donated £10m to Rishi Sunak’s party last year, records show (Daniel Leal/PA Wire)
Mr Hester donated £10m to Rishi Sunak’s party last year, records show (Daniel Leal/PA Wire)

A statement released by Mr Hester’s firm said: “Frank Hester accepts that he was rude about Diane Abbott in a private meeting several years ago but his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin.

“The Guardian is right when it quotes Frank saying he abhors racism, not least because he experienced it as the child of Irish immigrants in the 1970’s.

“He rang Diane Abbott twice today to try to apologise directly for the hurt he has caused her, and is deeply sorry for his remarks. He wishes to make it clear that he regards racism as a poison which has no place in public life.”

In response to a request by the BBC, a spokesperson for Mr Hester said the statement is not a confirmation of the alleged quotes in The Guardian.

The Independent has contacted TTP for comment.