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I was sacked 'because I was a Muslim', says Tory ex-minister

Boris Johnson dragged into Nusrat Ghani row, as she claims PM told her he 'could not get involved'. Ghani was fired as minister in 2020, saying whip said her faith made 'colleagues uncomfortable'
Conservative Party MP Nusrat Ghani joins members of the Uyghur community to call on the UK parliament to recognise alleged persecution of China's Muslim minority Uyghur people as genocide, London, 22 April 2021 (AFP)

A Conservative MP has claimed that a party whip told her she was sacked from her ministerial position because her Muslim faith was “making colleagues uncomfortable”.

Nusrat Ghani, 49, was fired as a transport minister in a mini-reshuffle in February 2020.

In an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper, Ghani claimed she was told by a whip that her “'Muslimness' was raised as an issue” at a meeting in Downing Street and that her “Muslim women minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”.

“It was like being punched in the stomach,” she said. “I felt humiliated and powerless.”

'It was like being punched in the stomach. I felt humiliated and powerless'

- Nusrat Ghani, Conservative MP

Ghani, vice-chair of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, claimed she kept quiet after being warned that if she continued to raise the issue she would be “ostracised by colleagues” and her “career and reputation would be destroyed”.

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No 10 tried to play down the row on Sunday, saying in a statement that “after being made aware of these extremely serious claims, the Prime Minister met with Nusrat Ghani to discuss them.

"He then wrote to her expressing his serious concern and inviting her to begin a formal complaint process. She did not subsequently do so. The Conservative Party does not tolerate prejudice or discrimination of any kind.”

However, in a potential escalation of the crisis for Downing Street, Ghani claimed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had told her that he "could not get involved".

“He wrote to me that he could not get involved, and suggested I use the internal Conservative Party complaint process," Ghani said on Sunday in a statement. "This, as I had already pointed out, was very clearly not appropriate for something that happened on government business.”

She added: “In my statement yesterday I was careful not to mention any names or implicate the PM. 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’s claims will also reignite allegations that the Conservative Party is institutionally Islamophobic. A report on the claims published two years ago was dismissed as a “whitewash” by Muslim Tories, including Baroness Warsi, the peer, and former party chairwoman.

'Muslimness raised as an issue'

Ghani, who is the Conservative MP for Wealden in East Sussex, was the first Muslim woman to be elected as a Tory MP, in 2015.

“When the prime minister told me he wanted me to leave my government post in the February 2020 reshuffle I was surprised, but understood that it was a fact of politics," Ghani said.

“At the post-reshuffle meeting with the whips, I asked what the thinking was behind the decision to fire me and what the mood music was when my name was mentioned in No 10 concerning the reshuffle. I was told that at the reshuffle meeting in Downing Street that ‘Muslimness’ was raised as an ‘issue’, that my ‘Muslim women minister’ status was making colleagues uncomfortable and that there were concerns ‘that I wasn’t loyal to the party as I didn’t do enough to defend the party against Islamophobia allegations’."

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Ghani said that when she challenged this, saying there was "little I could do about my identity, I had to listen to a monologue on how hard it was to define when people are being racist and that the party doesn’t have a problem and I needed to do more to defend it.

“It was very clear to me that the whips and No 10 were holding me to a higher threshold of loyalty than others because of my background and faith."

She had a second meeting with a whip in March 2020, where, she said, "I was again told there was no Islamophobia in the party and, as if to add to the issue they had with me, I was told that I was in fact fired for apparently saying to the PM that we had a ‘women problem’ (attracting female voters).

“In the following weeks, I was informed that if I persisted in raising this that I would be ostracised by colleagues and my career and reputation would be destroyed.

“The feeling of isolation and powerlessness after this episode would not leave me and I raised it several more times through official party channels and with some colleagues.

"However, after the threats from whips, I was extremely careful to follow procedure, and when the procedure ran out of road, I had no choice but to get on with my career and make a difference for my constituents and for the issues I care about from the backbenches.”

Ghani, who grew up in a working-class area of Birmingham, became an MP and then a minister until her 2020 sacking in the mini-reshuffle which followed Sajid Javid’s resignation as chancellor.

'I have an obligation to my party not to bury this incident'

-Nusrat Ghani

“I will not pretend that this hasn’t shaken my faith in the party and I have at times seriously considered whether to continue as an MP," she said.

"However, I will not let them win and force me out of politics... I also have an obligation to my party not to bury this incident. As one colleague reflected, ‘if you are too Muslim, then we are all stuffed’."

She added: “I have had to deal with threats based on my faith and race since being an MP and last month a man was arrested.”

The Sunday Times said that a government source close to the whips’ office had denied Ghani’s allegations.

Mounting pressures

Ghani's claims only add to the pressure on Boris Johnson and his government over allegations that parties were held in Downing Street at a time when the country was under strict lockdown measures to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

An inquiry into the alleged parties is currently being carried out by senior civil servant Sue Gray, who is expected to report back next week.

There is also a growing scandal over the behaviour of government whips towards their party colleagues.

William Wragg, a backbench Tory MP, is meeting police next week to discuss allegations that No 10 tried to blackmail MPs by threatening to withhold funds for their constituencies if they moved against the government. 

The MP, who wants the prime minister to quit, said he wanted to leave any probe to "experts" rather than No 10.

Downing Street said it had not seen any proof of the behaviour he alleges.

In a tweet on Saturday, Wragg praised Ghani’s courage.

“Nus is very brave to speak out,” he tweeted. “I was truly appalled to learn of her experience. She shows such strength and integrity supporting others… We must change things for the better.”

Chris Bryant, Labour chairman of the Commons standards committee, said he had spoken to “about a dozen” Tories in recent days who claimed they had either been bribed or threatened by government whips. They are said to have been warned that public money would be withdrawn from their constituencies if they defied the government, or poured in if they voted “the right way”.

"I've even heard MPs alleging that the prime minister himself has been doing this," Bryant told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He described the alleged behaviour as "misconduct in public office" and said it was a matter for the police.

Party scandal

Since news of the first party emerged, opposition MPs have been calling for the Metropolitan Police to investigate, but backbench Tory MPs are now also urging the force to step in.

Martin Vickers, Conservative MP for Cleethorpes since 2010, last week told constituents that “disciplinary actions, and possibly prosecutions, should follow”.

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“The truth is that none of this should have happened. I despair at the management structure in Downing Street that this could happen,” Vickers told the Observer newspaper.

Other Tories have also called for police intervention, with Andrew Selous, MP for South West Bedfordshire, backing a Met investigation into the party allegations.

“I want every one of these allegations to be fully and independently investigated, if necessary, by the police, and I want all of those, however senior, who have broken the law or government guidance to be appropriately punished,” he told constituents.

His fellow Conservative MP Stephen Crabb has also called for the Met to “investigate these gatherings”.

Crabb, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, told constituents last week that “it makes me feel extremely disappointed and genuinely let down".

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