'He's scared of his party': Starmer calls on Sunak to return cash from Tory donor at PMQs

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been accused of choosing donations from Frank Hester over condemning comments aimed at Diane Abbott, ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks reports and Political Editor Robert Peston provides analysis

Sir Keir Starmer has called on Rishi Sunak to return party donations from Frank Hester, after he made "racist" remarks about MP Diane Abbott.

Tory donor Frank Hester is alleged to have said in 2019 that Ms Abbott, Britain’s longest-serving black MP, made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”.

The Labour leader began Prime Minister's Questions by asking the Mr Sunak if he was "proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynist language?".

Mr Sunak replied saying: "the alleged comments were wrong, they are racist, he has rightly apologised for them and that should be accepted".

The Tory donor said he is "deeply sorry" for being "rude" to Ms Abbott, but has not apologised for being "racist".

Ms Abbott has since hit out at both the Conservative and Labour parties, accusing them both of "shocking" racism.

Writing in the Independent, she described Hester's words as "outrageously racist and sexist" and added that "the Tory party has long been a source of whipping up racism in this country".

Something she echoed when speaking about the Labour party, stating: "shocking levels of racism and sexism from within the Labour party, again much of it directed against me personally".

She also took aim at Sir Keir, stating that he "seemed equally reluctant at the onset to call out either racism or sexism" and that his focus was instead on "demanding the Tories give Hester back his money, which is surely not the primary point in this case".

Ms Abbott had the Labour whip removed last year after she wrote a letter about racism in the Observer, in which she played down the idea that Jewish people can experience racism.

Her words in the Independent come after she expressed frustration on X, formerly Twitter, that she wasn't chosen by the Speaker to ask a question during PMQs.

She wrote: "I don't know whose interests the Speaker thinks he is serving. But it is not the interests of the Commons or democracy."

A spokeswoman for Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said there was “not enough time” to call all MPs to ask a question, including Ms Abbott.

The prime minister accused the Labour leader of "double standards", citing a number of comments made by Labour MPs.

"He might want to reflect on the double standards of his deputy leader calling her opponents 'scum', his shadow foreign secretary comparing conservatives to Nazis, and the man he wanted to make chancellor talking about lynching a female minister," Mr Sunak said.

Jeremy Corbyn ally John McDonnell made the comments about wanting to lynch a Conservative female MP in 2015, before Sir Keir was leader of the party.

In 2019 Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy compared the hard-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs to Nazis.

The PM took a flight in a helicopter paid for donations from Mr Hester on 23 November 2023 Credit: MJ Pictures

In a U-turn on Tuesday, Mr Sunak described Mr Hester's remarks as “racist and wrong” in a statement, after Number 10 had initially refused to do so.

The Scottish Conservatives called on the government to "carefully review the donations it has received from Hester in response to his remarks", and confirmed the Scottish Conservative Party had never accepted donations from Mr Hester.

Labour MP Marsha de Cordova asked the prime minister if he would return a £15,000 from Hester to cover the cost of a helicopter flight, but Mr Sunak replied "no".

Instead he insisted he is "pleased that the gentleman is supporting a party that represents one of the most diverse governments in this country's history."

Ms de Cordova said it was "shameful" that it took Mr Sunak more than 24 hours to label Mr Hester's comments "racist".

The SNP's Stephen Flynn accused Mr Sunak of "putting money before morals", and citing Mr Hester's apology for being "rude", said: "he wasn't rude - he was racist, he was odious, and he was downright bloody dangerous."

When asked on Wednesday if he would accept more donations from Mr Hester, Postal Minister Kevin Hollinrake said "that's not a decision for me to take", but that "if somebody apologises for something they've done wrong, I don't think we should judge their character adversely on that basis."

He insisted Mr Hester "has apologised for what he said", and that "you can interpret what he said in different ways".

"To connect somebody's character with their skin colour is absolutely the wrong thing to do", he said.

In a sign of Tory divisions over the issue, Conservative West Midlands Mayor Andy Street said he would return the cash.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I would think about the company I kept and I would give that money back.”

The prime minister had come under increasing pressure over the remarks as Cabinet Minister Kemi Badenoch broke ranks to describe them as “racist”.

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “The comments allegedly made by Frank Hester were racist and wrong. He has now rightly apologised for the offence caused and where remorse is shown it should be accepted.

“The prime minister is clear there is no place for racism in public life and as the first British-Asian prime minister leading one of the most ethnically diverse Cabinets in our history, the UK is living proof of that fact.”

Pressure from Labour and the Lib Dems is mounting on the Conservatives to return the £10 million donated by Mr Hester last year, ahead of the Mr Sunak facing Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs on Wednesday afternoon.

Ms Abbott, a former Labour MP, described the comments made about her by Mr Hester as "frightening".

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Police are understood to have been contacted in relation to the the Guardian report about comments allegedly made by Mr Hester.

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said that officers from the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team were in contact with Ms Abbott and officers from West Yorkshire Police regarding the report.

"To hear someone talking like this is worrying", Ms Abbott said in a statement on Tuesday morning.

"I live in Hackney and do not drive so I find myself, at week-ends, popping on a bus or even walking places more than most MPs. I am a single woman and that makes me vulnerable anyway."

Mr Hester is the chief executive of The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), a healthcare technology firm which has been awarded a number of government contracts.

He admitted making “rude” comments, but said they had “nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, he said "racism... is a poison that has no place in public life."

"We should have the confidence to discuss our differences openly and even playfully", he continued.

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