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Voices: I live in a ‘no-go’ area of London – this is what it’s really like

A Conservative Party that cannot put a name to anti-Muslim prejudice will struggle to understand Britain (Getty Images)
A Conservative Party that cannot put a name to anti-Muslim prejudice will struggle to understand Britain (Getty Images)

I managed to cycle from the supposed “no-go area” of Tower Hamlets to Westminster this morning. The most shocking thing I saw was a fetching pair of pinstripe leggings overtaking me.

I was surprised when Paul Scully, the former business minister and a Conservative moderate, said to BBC London that “if you look at parts of Tower Hamlets … there are no-go areas”. I have lived in the east London borough most of my adult life and can say that he was talking rubbish.

But then, it wasn’t clear what he was saying. He said there were no-go areas in Tower Hamlets and “parts of Birmingham Sparkhill”, “mainly because of doctrine, mainly because of people using, abusing in many ways, their religion …” He bumbled to a conclusion of sorts: “That, I think, is the concern that needs to be addressed.”

He seemed to be suggesting that in places where a lot of Muslims live, some non-Muslims feel uncomfortable about it, but like many other Conservative MPs in the past few days, including the prime minister and the minister for illegal immigration, the more he tried to explain where he stood on the issue of Islamophobia, the less sense he made.

Personally, I preferred the robust good sense of Boris Johnson (yes, really) when he told Donald Trump to take a running jump over similar comments in 2015. Trump, who was then the Republican frontrunner for the presidency, called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, claiming police in cities such as London and Paris were “afraid for their lives” because of large Muslim populations.

Johnson hit back, saying: “The only reason I wouldn’t go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.”

But Trump’s ignorance about London is more understandable than Scully’s. Scully is the MP for Sutton and Cheam, right on the edge of Greater London, but it is still London, and he works in central London.

When Scully’s comments provoked an outraged reaction – including from Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, and Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for next door to Sparkhill – he returned to the BBC studio and tied himself in more knots: “If I’ve spoken mistakenly or created division, then I apologise, but there are a handful of people who will always seek offence and there are people who come in behind that.”

But it still wasn’t clear what he was trying to say: “It’s right that we have a conversation about why a very small minority – whether it’s Muslims, whether it’s gangs … or disaffected people in other areas – are creating fear.”

It looked like he probably realised that this was beginning to sound as if he was endorsing Islamophobia, and tried to back off.

Just as Rishi Sunak wants to avoid using the word “Islamophobia” to describe the comments made about Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, by Lee Anderson, the former Tory deputy chair. The prime minister wants to leave the way open for Anderson to come back to the Tory party – and calling him an Islamophobe would make that harder.

Mind you, it looks as if that battle is a lost cause. Anderson was defiant yesterday, refusing to apologise for saying that Khan was controlled by Islamists, in an interview in which he also said Islamists have “got control of Starmer as well”.

Anderson said he wouldn’t apologise to Khan “while I’ve got a breath in my body”. It sounds as if he has left the Tory party behind and intends to fight the next election as an independent or Reform candidate – which makes sense, as he has almost no chance of holding Ashfield as a Conservative.

Meanwhile, Sunak is left floundering, seemingly unable to identify Islamophobia in his own party. This failure to use plain language meant that Michael Tomlinson, the minister for illegal immigration, had a difficult time on TV this morning when he condemned Anderson’s words for being “wrong” but couldn’t say what was wrong about them.

Let me help him, because to me it’s clear: what Anderson said was Islamophobic. What Scully said was Islamophobic. Tower Hamlets is not a no-go area. As in many parts of London, there are a lot of Palestinian flags, which could be merely expressing support for a two-state settlement in the Middle East – they are just flags, and can be interpreted in many ways. They could even be intended to rebuke Hamas for doing so much damage to the Palestinian cause.

But disagreeing about politics does not make a place “no go”.