The Guardian view on Tory Islamophobia: the rot starts at the top

Show caption Nusrat Ghani asserts ‘she was told that, as a Muslim Conservative, she had not done enough to defend the party from widespread allegations of Islamophobia.’ Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Reuters Opinion The Guardian view on Tory Islamophobia: the rot starts at the top Editorial A former minister’s allegations should be the catalyst for finally tackling a problem that blights the modern Conservative party Mon 24 Jan 2022 18.55 GMT Share on Facebook

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Another day, another inquiry into alleged serious misbehaviour in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street operation. The prime minister’s decision to order a Cabinet Office investigation into allegations of Islamophobia by the Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani is welcome. But as Mr Johnson braces for a tumultuous week in which Sue Gray’s report on “partygate” could conceivably bring him down, it will partly have been motivated by a desire to kick this latest crisis into the long grass. Given the importance of the issues raised by Ms Ghani, their significance must not be lost in the chaos of an administration incapable of focusing on anything bar its own survival.

Ms Ghani claimed in a weekend interview that after she was sacked from a ministerial role in 2020, she was told by a government whip in Downing Street that her “Muslimness” had become a problem, and that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”. She also asserts she was told that, as a Muslim Conservative, she had not done enough to defend the party from widespread allegations of Islamophobia. These allegations have been vehemently denied by the chief whip, Mark Spencer, who identified himself on Twitter as the politician Ms Ghani was referring to. They are deeply shocking because they allege that as a female member of a minority group, Ms Ghani was effectively being told by the government that her face didn’t fit and she wasn’t doing enough to ensure that it did. When she complained to Mr Johnson over her treatment, the prime minister blithely refused to treat it as a government matter and directed her to internal party complaints procedures.

It will be for the inquiry to establish exactly what took place. But that the Conservative party has a long-running problem with Islamophobia is beyond question. Last year a YouGov poll found that nearly half of party members judged Islam to be “a threat to the British way of life”. Ms Ghani has already received forthright support from the health secretary, Sajid Javid, whose previous demands for an inquiry into anti-Muslim discrimination in the party resulted in the Singh investigation, published last summer. This criticised Zac Goldsmith’s scurrilous attempts to link Sadiq Khan to Islamist extremism during the London mayoral race of 2016, and Mr Johnson’s offensive “letterbox” disparagement of veiled Muslim women in a newspaper column.

Two-thirds of allegations of discrimination in the Tory party were found to relate to Islamophobia, in what was found to be a flawed complaints process. But the report failed to examine the deep-rooted patterns of prejudice to which figures such as Sayeeda Warsi have repeatedly pointed and, unlike Labour and the Lib Dems, Mr Johnson’s Conservative party continues to refuse to sign up to the all-party parliamentary group definition of Islamophobia. The cumulative impression is of a party that only bothers to stir when a scandal bursts out in the open.

Ms Ghani’s decision to go public, after almost two years of anguished silence, should be the catalyst for a robust process of self-examination at all levels of the party – one equivalent to that undertaken on antisemitism by the Labour party. The vocal solidarity expressed by Mr Javid and the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, suggests that a more diverse generation of senior Tories may be better positioned to drive through the cultural transformation that is so badly required. British Muslims will not hold their breath, but change cannot come soon enough.