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Attacks on Penny Mordaunt are fresh evidence of Tory Islamophobia

Rivals on the Conservative right are looking for ways to destroy her leadership campaign - and right away, they have played the Muslim card
British Tory leadership hopeful Penny Mordaunt is pictured in London on 17 July 2022 (AFP)

Six years ago, Tory Zac Goldsmith led one of the most bigoted campaigns in modern British history when he ran to be mayor of London. Rather than play straight, he concentrated on the religion of his Labour opponent, charging that Sadiq Khan was an apologist for “extremists” and thus unfit for office.

This policy of falsely portraying Khan as the pawn of sinister “Islamist” forces came right from the top of the Tory party. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron led the way when he smeared an innocent south London imam from the Commons despatch box as a supporter of the Islamic State.

So it’s no surprise that elements inside the Tory party are once again using bigotry as a noxious weapon in the dirty war to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative prime minister. When Penny Mordaunt emerged as the surprise frontrunner, her rivals on the Tory right immediately looked for ways to destroy her.

There is nothing sane or rational about the Tory leadership contest. It's a dark, murky affair disfigured by obscure hatreds and dirty tricks

In today’s Conservative Party, that means playing the Muslim card. Remember that in a YouGov poll several years ago, more than two-thirds of the tiny group of Tory members who will decide this contest believe the conspiracy theory that parts of the UK are governed by sharia law. According to Hope Not Hate, the group that commissioned the poll: “From the grassroots to the great offices of state, Conservative members buy into racist myths, with almost half unwilling to have a Muslim prime minister.” 

This is the background to Monday’s assault on Mordaunt in the Daily Mail, which supports her rival, Liz Truss. The front page splash reported that Mordaunt “faced fresh questions over her judgment for meeting a controversial Muslim group - despite it being subject to a government boycott”.

The story focused on a meeting last year between Mordaunt and Zara Mohammed, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). The Mail quoted an anonymous “government source” attacking Mordaunt’s “dodgy judgment”, adding: “Do MPs really want more stuff like this coming out if she’s in No 10?” 

The paper also quoted Lord Mann, adviser to the government on antisemitism, who accused Mordaunt of taking “unnecessary risks”.

Bigoted policies

The story was based on significant errors of fact. It is true that Gordon Brown’s government severed ties with the MCB in 2009 after its deputy secretary general, Daud Abdullah, signed a statement that many said encouraged attacks on British forces abroad - an interpretation strongly rejected by Abdullah. 

The boycott, however, did not last long. Labour ministers resumed relations with the MCB within a matter of months, and the policy of engagement was continued by Cameron’s coalition government after the 2010 general election. The Daily Mail story did not mention this, but it did quote a government spokesperson who last year said it had a “longstanding policy of not engaging with the MCB and that has not changed”. 

As with so many statements made by the spokespersons for the Johnson government, this is nonsense. Both Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers, as well as officials, continued to engage with the MCB after the so-called boycott period. 

According to the Guardian, civil servants continued to meet with the MCB until March 2020. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the severance of relations came after the arrival of Johnson as prime minister.

Johnson has been by far the most bigoted premier in modern British history. As I demonstrated for Middle East Eye shortly after he was elected prime minister, Johnson has revisited the bigotry of Enoch Powell, making use of racist and Islamophobic language, while on occasion adopting antisemitic tropes. 

There is reason to speculate that Johnson benefitted politically from this barbarous language, incorporating it into his “war on woke” and his general encouragement of culture wars to deflect attention from the well-known policy failures of his government.

For a long time, many people turned a blind eye to Johnson’s bigotry. The one organisation that held the now-disgraced prime minister up to scrutiny was, to its immense credit, the MCB.

In March 2020, the MCB made a powerful case for an Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into Tory Islamophobia, comparable to the commission’s probe of Labour antisemitism. It sent a dossier outlining evidence against more than 300 individuals, including MPs, councillors, Tory party members and special advisers inside 10 Downing Street.

Tory cesspit

Coincidence or not, March 2020 is the month, according to the Guardian, when for unexplained reasons British civil servants broke off relations with the MCB. This is the essential background for understanding last year’s meeting between Mordaunt and Mohammed. Mohammed was the new, young, fresh-faced secretary general of the MCB. 

She had nothing to do with the old guard, which, rightly or wrongly, had been briefly blacklisted by Brown in 2009. By meeting the new secretary general, Mordaunt did what any sensible or decent minister would do. Afterwards she tweeted: “Great to have met with @ZaraM01 today, to wish her every success and hear more about her plans. Look forward to working with her and her team.”  

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According to the Daily Mail, which appears to have been well-briefed by Downing Street, Johnson (who has a long record, remember, of making Islamophobic comments) then told Mordaunt to take down what the newspaper called her “self-promoting tweet”. She refused. Good for her. 

In a sane and rational world, Mordaunt’s conduct would deserve praise. But there is nothing sane or rational about the Tory leadership contest. It’s a dark, murky affair disfigured by obscure hatreds and dirty tricks. The ultimate arbiters are fewer than 200,000 Tory members, many of whom subscribe to conspiracy theories about Muslims. Many read the Daily Mail. 

The latest attack on Mordaunt will work. On Monday, I rang up a well-connected Mordaunt supporter to say that I intended to defend the Tory leadership hopeful. “Please don’t write anything,” he urged me. “It will make things worse.”

Monday’s attack on Mordaunt in the Daily Mail is fresh evidence that Johnson has turned the Conservative Party into a cesspit of Islamophobia. 

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

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book, The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, was published in February 2021 and was a Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.