Sir Keir Starmer has accused the prime minister of harbouring extremists in his party after a senior Tory MP was suspended for “Islamophobic” comments.
The Labour leader said Rishi Sunak’s “weakness” allowed Lee Anderson “to act with impunity” and that he “needs to get a grip and take on the extremists in his party”.
Sir Keir said it was “right” that Mr Anderson lost the whip after what he called an “appalling racist and Islamophobic outburst”.
He added: “But what does it say about the prime minister’s judgement that he made Lee Anderson deputy chairman of his party?
“Whether it is Liz Truss staying silent on Tommy Robinson or Suella Braverman’s extreme rhetoric, Rishi Sunak’s weakness means Tory MPs can act with impunity.
“This isn’t just embarrassing for the Conservative party, it emboldens the worst forces in our politics.”
It came as Mr Sunak released his own statement, criticising those who have threatened and targeted MPs over the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and saying British democracy must not “fall into polarised camps who hate each other”.
Mr Sunak said: “The events of recent weeks are but the latest in an emerging pattern which should not be tolerated.
“Legitimate protests hijacked by extremists to promote and glorify terrorism, elected representatives verbally threatened and physically, violently targeted and antisemitic tropes beamed onto our own parliament building.”
Referring to when the Commons Speaker broke convention in a Gaza ceasefire debate this week out of fears’ for MPs’ safety, Mr Sunak said: “And in parliament this week a very dangerous signal was sent that this sort of intimidation works. It is toxic for our society and our politics and is an affront to the liberties and values we hold dear here in Britain.”
His statement made no mention of Mr Anderson or his comments.
What Rishi Sunak didn’t say is more notable than what he did
The prime minister’s comments were notable because of what he chose to omit.
On a day when the party was rocked by allegations of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred – a day when it had to suspend one of its own MPs because of these very issues – Rishi Sunak chose to make some comments.
Instead of condemning the remarks or distancing the party from them, the prime minister chose not to make any reference to them at all, rather, he chose to speak more explicitly about antisemitism.
The prime minister said: “The explosion in prejudice and antisemitism since the Hamas attacks on the 7 October are as unacceptable as they are un-British. Simply put antisemitism is racism.”
We know that hate crime towards both Muslim and Jewish communities has been rising since 7 October.
However, some may question why, after a day like this, Mr Sunak chose to omit explicit reference to Muslim communities.
These comments, and the tone of the remarks, do not challenge the prevailing view held in some quarters that the Conservative party doesn’t take Islamophobia seriously.
The prime minister avoids using the word at all when discussing anti-Muslim hatred.
Of course, the Labour party, which over the years has faced accusations of antisemitism, had no such problem calling it out.
Sir Keir Starmer said: “It’s right that Lee Anderson has lost the whip after his appalling racist and Islamophobic outburst against Sadiq Khan.”
He went on to question Mr Sunak’s judgement saying he needed to get a grip of “extremists” in his own party.
The incident does expose how difficult the prime minister is finding it to exert authority over his fracturing right-wing coalition and create some semblance of a unified identity for his party.
He knows that he needs to placate the right of his party, which sometimes means turning a blind eye to some of its more outspoken characters, like Suella Braverman and Liz Truss.
However, there’s a line and it’s becoming more and more difficult for Mr Sunak to tread.
With this statement the prime minister was, once again, speaking to this right-wing faction (on a day when they lost a key figure in Lee Anderson) instead of the communities that may have been affected by his remarks.
On Wednesday, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said he selected multiple amendments to the motion to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza in a bid to ensure all options were on the table for MPs to vote on – as well as protecting MPs’ safety.
Mr Sunak’s party suspended Mr Anderson, the former Tory deputy chairman, hours before he released the statement.
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Mr Anderson claimed on GB News earlier this week – without evidence – that “Islamists” had “got control” of Mr Khan, leading to an outcry from both sides of the political divide.
The Ashfield MP said he accepts the Tory party had “no option” but to suspend him.
“However, I will continue to support the government’s efforts to call out extremism in all its forms – be that antisemitism or Islamophobia,” he said.