PM: 'I don't believe Lee is a racist person, but the comments were wrong'

The prime minister has said Lee Anderson's comments 'were wrong' after he claimed Sadiq Khan was being controlled by 'Islamists', ITV News' Carl Dinnen reports

Rishi Sunak told ITV Calendar on Monday he doesn't think Lee Anderson "is a racist, or an Islamophobic person", but admitted that his "comments were wrong".

The prime minister said the comments were "ill-judged" and "incumbent on everybody, particularly politicians, to be careful with the words they use".

Anderson, the former deputy chairman, lost the Conservative whip over the weekend after failing to apologise for claiming “Islamists” had “got control” of the London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Anderson doubled down on his comments about Khan on Monday, acknowledging his words were "clumsy" but insisting "when you're right, you should never apologise".

The now independent MP told GB News: “I made some comments yesterday that some people thought were divisive.

"Politics is divisive and I am just incredibly frustrated about the abject failures of the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

"My words may have been clumsy but my words were borne out of sheer frustration at what is happening in our beautiful capital city.

"When you think you are right you should never apologise because to do so would be a sign of weakness".

Khan responded to the latest developments on Monday afternoon, saying he was "bewildered" that Sunak hadn't called out Anderson's comments.

"There are tropes that are clearly anti-semitic, we call them out.

"There are tropes that are clearly Islamophobic and anti-Muslim, they should be called out as well".

"What this man said was racist, Islamophobic and anti-Muslim", he said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: "Islamophobia is something which should be called out by every political leader, and the prime minister isn't calling it out, because he's too weak".

"I don't think anybody can make excuses for this prime minister and say it's all too difficult, it's very straight forward, he lacks the backbone to call this out for what it is", he added.

Conservative MP Tom Hunt said Anderson had "put his foot in it", but that he didn't think he was "a racist".

He said "the vast majority of Muslims are decent people who share our values... but there is a problem with radical Islam and we've all got to confront that".

Police patrols were being carried out on Monday around Mr Anderson's constitutency office in Ashfield following his comments on GB News.

Amid a wider spat in the party about language used, West Midlands mayor Andy Street lambasted fellow Conservative Paul Scully for claiming that a part of Birmingham with a large Muslim community was a “no-go area”.

“The idea that Birmingham has a ‘no-go’ zone is news to me, and I suspect the good people of Sparkhill,” Mr Street said on X, formerly Twitter.

“It really is time for those in Westminster to stop the nonsense slurs and experience the real world.”

Labour former minister Dawn Butler told parliament on Monday she had to seek extra police support over the weekend due to receiving far-right abuse following “racist, Islamophobic, anti-Muslim hate” she said had been partly encouraged by Anderson, Suella Braverman and Liz Truss.

Speaking in the Commons, she said: “I have had to seek extra police support this weekend due to the far-right abuse that I have suffered inspired and unleashed in part by the conspiracy theory, the racist, Islamophobic, anti-Muslim hate peddled by members for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), Fareham (Suella Braverman) and South West Norfolk (Liz Truss).”

The Muslim Council of Britain wrote to the Conservative Party on Monday, calling for an inquiry into the party's "structural Islamophobia".

In a letter addressed to the Conservative chair, Richard Holden, the MCB said Islamophobia in the party was “institutional, tolerated by the leadership and seen as acceptable by great swathes of the party membership”.

Business minister Nus Ghani and senior Tory backbencher Sir Sajid Javid had been among those calling out the remarks, while Sir Robert Buckland denounced them as “repugnant” and “racist” on Sunday.

A Conservative party source had defended the comments on Friday night, before Mr Anderson was stripped of party support on Saturday amid mounting condemnation from across the political divide.

Sir Robert, a former justice secretary, hit out at the comments in a strongly worded intervention on Sunday.

Speaking to ITV News, he said Anderson’s remarks were “Islamophobic” and “racist”.

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Baroness Warsi, who was a minister in now-Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron’s government, said Sunak needed to “find the language” to explicitly “call racism, racism”.

Speaking to the Guardian on Sunday, she said: “What is it about the Prime Minister that he can’t even call out anti-Muslim racism and anti-Muslim bigotry? Why can’t he just use those words?”

Anderson's comments came at the end of a week that saw Parliament descend into chaos over a row about the handling of a Commons vote on Gaza and concerns for MPs’ safety.

Anderson, a standard bearer for the Tory right, will now sit as an Independent unless he defects to another party that chooses to offer him its backing.

Following his suspension he said he accepted that the Prime Minister and Chief Whip Simon Hart had been put in a “difficult position”, with “no option” but to take disciplinary action.

“However, I will continue to support the Government’s efforts to call out extremism in all its forms – be that antisemitism or Islamophobia,” Anderson said in a statement.

Labour has called on the prime minister to confirm that no “deals or undertakings” were offered to the former deputy party chairman that would see him have the whip restored.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing calls to publicly address the remarks Credit: Jordan Pettitt/PA

The suspension comes amid a wider row about language used by several senior Tories including Braverman and Truss, who claimed during the latest leg of her comeback to the political limelight that her efforts to cut taxes were “sabotaged” by “the deep state”.

The former prime minister, whose disastrous mini-budget caused economic chaos, also remained silent during an interview with Steve Bannon in which he hailed far-right figure Tommy Robinson a “hero”.

Braverman wrote in the Telegraph on Friday that "Islamists are in charge of Britain".

Anderson has served since 2019 as MP for Ashfield, one of the previously Labour seats in the so-called red wall where voters switched to the Tories post-Brexit to give Boris Johnson his landslide victory.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Council of Britain said the Conservative Party must launch an investigation into alleged “structural Islamophobia” within its ranks.

A Conservative spokesperson told ITV News: “An investigation and subsequent independent review, both conducted over several years by Professor Swaran Singh, found no evidence of institutional racism in the Conservative Party.”

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