Tory supporters lash out at ‘snake’ Sunak over Lee Anderson suspension

<span>Lee Anderson was suspended from the Conservative party whip after refusing to apologise for saying Islamists had ‘got control of’ Sadiq Khan.</span><span>Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA</span>
Lee Anderson was suspended from the Conservative party whip after refusing to apologise for saying Islamists had ‘got control of’ Sadiq Khan.Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

Grassroots Conservative supporters have called Rishi Sunak a “snake” over Lee Anderson’s suspension as MPs on the Tory right said he should be given a route back in.

In leaked WhatsApp messages obtained by the Guardian, members of the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), which was founded by disgruntled Tories after Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss were ousted, attacked the prime minister for kicking Anderson out of the parliamentary party.

Several of the activists endorsed Anderson’s comments and some went further in decrying “the threat of Islam”.

Anderson, who was a deputy Tory chair until last month, was suspended from the party whip on Saturday after he refused to apologise for saying Islamists had “got control of” Sadiq Khan. Anderson claimed on GB News that the London mayor had “given our capital city away to his mates”. He now sits as the independent MP for Ashfield.

Several Conservative MPs said on Monday they would like to see Anderson readmitted to their ranks if he apologised for his remarks. Jonathan Gullis, the Tory MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, told Times Radio: “I hope that we will see him return to that party sooner rather than later but of course he has to, I think, make that apology to Mayor Khan.”

Another Tory MP said: “He wants to come back. We want him back.”

The leaked CDO WhatsApp messages show the fury with which Anderson’s suspension was met by grassroots Tories, several of whom said they agreed with his comments.

The CDO was created in December 2022 by the Tory donor and Johnson supporter Peter Cruddas and contains members of the party and non-members. It has had high-profile support from senior Tory politicians on the right, with Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries addressing its conference last May.

After news of Anderson’s suspension broke, one activist on a CDO WhatsApp group for the south-east said it was “time for the snake of a PM to go.” Another called Sunak a “nutsak” and said “he should never have been there”.

Several group members endorsed Anderson’s comments and expressed similar sentiments. “And everyone says Suella was exaggerating,” one activist said. “The government are now owned by fear of Islamic rule.” Another responded: “So right.”

Another group member denounced Sunak as “weak and feeble” and said: “At an association AGM today, we were all asked to get behind Rishi Sunak. But I see now he’s fallen for a Labour attack on Lee Anderson which is a diversion of Keir Starmer’s ‘urging’/coercion of the speaker of the house last Wednesday.”

Multiple activists expressed support for Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, who wrote last week that “the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now”.

One CDO member said: “She is saying the exact same thing as Lee Anderson, just in less colourful language, and importantly in print. I am beginning to believe that Suella is the only person who has shown the mettle who can turn the party and remove the threat of Islam from our country.”

In a screenshot seen by the Guardian, this message was liked by 10 group members.

In an echo of a speech that Braverman made in the US in September, James Cleverly, the home secretary, will on Tuesday call for global action to reform international laws governing migration.

He plans to stress that people from developing countries seeking to move to the west should be encouraged to “stay and thrive at home”, comments which have been condemned by a refugee charity for failing to refer to the refugee convention and the right to claim asylum.

Members of the WatsApp group shared a CDO petition calling for Anderson’s reinstatement, with one person saying it had amassed 5,000 signatures overnight.

The messages demonstrate the activists’ degree of pessimism about their electoral chances in the general election. Several said Anderson’s suspension would repel voters who agreed with his views.

“There goes Lee’s voters – wonder what happens when it dawns on them that they actually need voters to keep themselves in power,” one person said. Another remarked: “5 years of labour [sic] will concentrate minds, it’s the only way they will wake up unfortunately.”

One group member shared a link to a “Lee Anderson Appreciation Group” on Facebook alongside the words: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” attributing them to George Orwell.

In another WhatsApp group, for CDO members in London, there was speculation over whether Sunak might remove the Tory whip from Truss. David Campbell Bannerman, the former Tory MEP, told the group: “Truss mentioned – left pushing on it.”

On Monday Anderson stood by his remarks, admitting they were “clumsy” but insisting they were “born out of sheer frustration at what is happening to our beautiful capital city”.

He said in a statement: “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.”

Rishi Sunak repeatedly refused to describe Anderson’s comments as Islamophobic when pressed during interviews on Monday.

“I’ve been very clear that what he said was wrong, it was unacceptable and that’s why we suspended the whip,” the prime minister told broadcasters in Yorkshire. “It’s important that everybody, but particularly elected politicians, are careful with their words and do not inflame tensions.”

Sunak also declined to criticise Braverman, saying her comments “were not about an individual in particular”.

In an article for the Evening Standard on Monday, Khan wrote that Sunak’s refusal to describe the comments as Islamophobic was “a tacit endorsement of anti-Muslim hatred and can only lead to the conclusion that anti-Muslim bigotry and racism are not taken seriously”.

As pressure mounted on Sunak, the Conservative Muslim Forum, which is the party’s affiliated body for Muslim members, was in talks about meeting the Tory chair, Richard Holden, this week.

Naveed Asghar, the deputy chair of the CMF, said: “Is the party racist or Islamophobic? I would say no, from my heart. Individuals? Yes. Are these people pandering to the vote base in their seats? I can’t see what’s going on.

“If he is doubling down on the comments then the party should absolutely be having a word with him. I was hoping that the suspension would be enough.

“Any inflammatory remarks are just not acceptable, whether it’s people on the left making antisemitic comments or people on the right making anti-Muslim comments.”

Gavin Barwell, a peer and former chief of staff to Theresa May, said Anderson should not be allowed back into the parliamentary party until he made a genuine apology.

“In terms of what happens next, I think if you were going to let anyone back in, you’d want to be convinced that an apology was genuine,” he said. “I think it’s pretty clear that the language that was used, was used with the intent of stirring up religious hatred and division.”