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Tory party Islamophobia: Theresa May must act now

There is a very serious problem of anti-Muslim bigotry inside the Conservative Party and the problem gets deeper all the time
People walk past branded awning at the venue of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain, 1 October, 2018 (Reuters)

It's just under two weeks since I last wrote in Middle East Eye about the noxious anti-Muslim bigotry that infests Theresa May's Conservative party.

I make no apology for doing so again in light of the eruption of two more very serious problems. 

Toxic Islamophobia

The first of these concerns last night’s very troubling revelation by Buzzfeed News that people claiming to be Tory party members have made a series of toxic Islamophobic comments. 

The worst of these comments, which comes from something called the "Jacob Rees-Mogg Supporters Group" Facebook page, concerns killing Muslims. 

Just imagine the reaction had a senior member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet stated on the record that Labour had no outstanding investigations into anti-semitism

An individual who posted a photo of himself campaigning for the Tories said: "I was going through a few magazines the other day down at the local Mosque. I was really enjoying myself. Then the rifle jammed."

The Tory party says that it has suspended a number of Tory members after an investigation. They will not say how many. To be fair to the Conservative Party, at this stage nobody knows much about the bigots concerned and it would be wrong to jump to any conclusions.

The second scandal is potentially even more serious. It concerns the Tory chairman Brandon Lewis and accusations that he has deliberately misled the public about the extent of Tory Islamophobia. 

This problem dates back to November when the advocacy group Hope Not Hate asked Lewis on Twitter about its record on Islamophobia. Lewis responded: "We deal with complaints, none outstanding."

Outstanding complaints

As far as I can discover, there is no doubt at all that there were outstanding complaints at the time. 

To take one example, members of Portsmouth South Conservative Association claim that Lewis had repeatedly ignored registered letters and emails of complaints sent to his office up to two years prior to his statement at the end of last year. 

Britain's Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain on 13 March (REUTERS)
Britain's Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain on 13 March (Reuters)

Former chair of the constituency Leo Ciccarone wrote in one email to Lewis that there were "some dozen outstanding racism complaints". One of the complaints concerned a Conservative council candidate being referred to as an orangutan. 

In another case, South Shields Conservatives chair Ajay Jagota received an apology from Downing Street for the failure of Lewis and the Conservatives complaints department to take action against an incident of Islamophobia. 

A Conservative councillor is alleged to have said: "I’m not working with that Muslim," in reference to Jagota. But despite Lewis allegedly being informed of the complaint in person at the Tory party conference in September last year, Jagota has still had no response from Lewis or CCHQ.

The Conservative Party insists that such complaints are dealt with locally and are not a matter for the chairman. Nevertheless it is understandable that Hope Not Hate has asked the party chairman if he was deliberately trying to "mislead" them and "members of the public" with his statement. 

It is also noteworthy that former Tory chairperson Sayeeda Warsi has also made the charge of dishonesty. 

No convincing response

This is serious. Just imagine the scale of the reaction had a senior member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet stated on the record that the Labour Party had no outstanding investigations into anti-semitism, and that it later emerged that he was not telling the truth.

He would be tormented by massive front-page newspaper headlines - and quite right too. 

Today I spoke to a Conservative party official. She referred me to a statement by Lewis in response to the letter from Hope Not Hate’s chief executive Nick Lowles. In it, Lewis states that "abuse or discrimination directed at anyone because of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation or disability is totally unacceptable."  

Lewis’s latest remarks form part of a pattern of denial in the upper reaches of the Conservative Party

Although the sentiments expressed in Lewis’s letter are unimpeachable, he does not provide a convincing response to the deadly allegation that his statement on 7 November was misleading. 

There clearly were complaints outstanding last November - when Lewis said there weren’t. He also asserted in his letter that the Conservative Party takes "swift action" when complaints are made. 

Once again this claim is open to question.

A pattern of denial

In my view Lewis’s latest remarks form part of a pattern of denial in the upper reaches of the Conservative Party. Last year, deputy chairman James Cleverly denied Baroness Warsi's claims that the party experienced "almost weekly occurrences of Islamophobic incidents".

And two weeks ago he reiterated claims that the Conservative Party takes "immediate action" over allegations of racism.

Britain needs a full inquiry into the poison of Islamophobia inside the Conservative Party
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Another Tory MP, Henry Smith, also denied Warsi’s claims by saying in February he had "never come across" Islamophobia in the party.

As I have frequently argued in Middle East Eye, there is a very serious problem of anti-Muslim bigotry inside the Conservative Party ranging from Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign of 2016 to the easy tolerance of Tory MPs who spread lies about Muslims. 

The problem gets deeper all the time. We are not talking about a few random cases.

It is now beyond question of reasonable doubt that the Tory party is institutionally Islamophobic. The Tory Party constantly accuses Jeremy Corbyn of inertia about allegations of Labour Party anti-semitism.

I am afraid that the Conservatives are open to the same charge over anti-Muslim hatred.

Theresa May needs to invite an independent individual of real credibility and armed with investigatory powers to investigate the problem.

She needs to do so urgently. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.