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Tories must show intolerance of Islamophobia

What may be a decisive week for his premiership began dismally for Boris Johnson. The prime minister was compelled to order a Cabinet Office inquiry into a former minister’s allegations that she was sacked from government because of concerns surrounding her “Muslimness”. Not only does this rumpus pose new questions about the prime minister’s judgment and leadership. It has also rekindled claims that, despite the findings of an independent review last year, the Conservative party is institutionally Islamophobic.

Nusrat Ghani says that after being sacked as a transport minister in a February 2020 reshuffle, she was told her “Muslimness” had been raised as an issue and her status as a “Muslim woman minister” made some Tory colleagues uncomfortable. Such an idea will be objectionable and unsettling for many. As Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a former Tory party chair, has noted, being removed from a job because of a protected characteristic would be unlawful. Mark Spencer, chief whip, has called the allegations completely false and said he considered them defamatory.

Johnson has said he takes Ghani’s comments extremely seriously and is glad they will be investigated. But, as Westminster awaits a senior official’s report into Downing Street parties during lockdown, Ghani’s claims put his stewardship under new scrutiny. Since her complaints surrounded her removal as a minister they should have been referred for an official inquiry when she raised them with the prime minister in July 2020, not just a party probe as he proposed. His U-turn, now he is severely politically weakened, comes 18 months too late.

The prime minister himself was rightly criticised for a 2018 newspaper column likening women wearing burkas to “letter boxes”. His defenders point to the fact that he leads Britain’s most diverse cabinet. Yet Ghani’s reluctance to have her complaint handled as a party matter is understandable given repeated charges of anti-Muslim prejudice against the Conservatives.

Allegations of racism are hardly a Tory preserve. A damning report into anti-Semitism in the Labour party found serious failures of process and leadership under its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s anti-Semitism, however egregious, felt to an extent like a problem that had been imported with “Corbynism”.

Allegations of Conservative Islamophobia long predate Johnson’s premiership. Warsi pushed for an independent inquiry in 2018, citing years of grievances and pointing to Lord Zac Goldsmith’s distasteful 2016 campaign for London mayor, when he was accused of conducting a smear campaign against his Muslim rival Sadiq Khan.

A review led by Professor Swaran Singh found institutional failings in how the Conservatives handled complaints of anti-Muslim prejudice. It also found signs of Islamophobia within local Tory associations. But it said there was no evidence of institutional Islamophobia — which some Muslim Tories dismissed as a “whitewash”.

Cabinet Office scrutiny of Ghani’s claims is important and overdue, though it may struggle with a matter that comes down to one person’s word against another. What is needed is a wide-ranging probe encompassing the parliamentary party. This is an issue of values and ethics but also of electoral appeal for a party that underperforms with Muslim voters. Ultimately, the best way to deal with racism is through a culture of intolerance towards intolerance, set by the leader. Johnson has fallen down on this, as on so many other issues. Whether or not he survives, that needs to change.

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