Boris Johnson was accused on Sunday of failing to investigate allegations of Islamophobia within his government by a former minister, deepening the civil war engulfing the Conservative party.
The claim comes as the UK prime minister prepares for the publication of a long-awaited investigation into a series of Whitehall parties that broke coronavirus restrictions. Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, is expected to conclude her inquiry and publish the findings in the coming days.
Many Conservative MPs will decide whether to submit letters of no confidence in Johnson based on her findings — notably whether he misled parliament about a party held in the Number 10 garden on May 20, 2020 that he attended.
The crisis within the party was exacerbated by allegations from Nusrat Ghani, who said on Saturday that a Tory whip informed her that her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” by Downing Street for her being fired from government.
Ghani, who served as a transport minister from January 2018 until February 2020 told the Sunday Times that the whip told her that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”. She stated that she felt “humiliated and powerless” and was warned not to discuss the issue or her “career and reputation would be destroyed”.
Mark Spencer, chief whip, identified himself as the whip she spoke to in March 2020 but described her comments as “completely false” and “defamatory”.
Downing Street said on Sunday that Johnson met Ghani in July 2020 after he was made aware of “these extremely serious claims” and later wrote to her “expressing his serious concern and inviting her to begin a formal complaint process”. Number 10 added: “The Conservative party does not tolerate prejudice or discrimination of any kind.”
Following this statement, Ghani responded that she was “deeply disappointed” at the situation, noting that she felt the allegations were “a government matter” and not for the Tory party. She added that Johnson told her “he could not get involved” in the dispute.
“In my statement yesterday I was careful not to mention any names or implicate the prime minister. All I have ever wanted was for his government to take this seriously, investigate properly and ensure no other colleague has to endure this,” Ghani said.
Spencer echoed Downing Street’s statement. “It is disappointing that when this issue was raised before Ms Ghani declined to refer the matter to the Conservative party for a formal investigation.”
He said, “I provided evidence to the Singh Investigation into Islamophobia which concluded that there was no credible basis for the claims.”
Ghani was defended by several prominent Conservatives, including two cabinet ministers. Sajid Javid, health secretary, described her allegations as “a very serious matter” that warranted “a proper investigation.” He said, “I would strongly support her in making a formal complaint — she must be heard.”
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi called for the allegations to be “investigated properly” and “racism routed [sic] out”. He wrote on Twitter with a hashtag #standwithNus, “there is no place for Islamophobia or any form of racism in our Conservatives party”.
Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister, told Sky News the allegations were “incredibly serious” but pointed out that she had declined to make a formal complaint.
“It is very unusual that the chief whip has come out and . . . categorically denied it in what can only be described as the most forthright and robust terms,” he said.
Meanwhile Christian Wakeford, who defected to the Labour party from the Tories last week, named former education secretary and chief whip Gavin Williamson as the whip who threatened to cancel the construction of a new school if he did “not vote in one particular way”.
Wakeford told the Sunday Times, that Williamson told him: “It’s not very helpful to back an opposition [motion] against the department where you’re wanting an extremely large favour from said department, so do consider what you’re doing.”
Williamson said he did not have “any recollection of the conversation as described”.