The row over Islamophobia gripping the government deepened on Sunday as the former minister Nusrat Ghani claimed the prime minister told her he “could not get involved” after she told him party whips had blamed her sacking on her “Muslimness”.
Ghani’s claims have rocked the Tory party at a critical time for Boris Johnson, as he awaits a make-or-break inquiry into lockdown-flouting parties in Downing Street.
Ghani told the Sunday Times that her “Muslimness” was raised when she was removed from a ministerial job in 2020, and she was told it was “making colleagues uncomfortable”.
No 10 sought to defuse 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, Ghani said that after she had spoken to Johnson about her treatment: “He wrote to me that he could not get involved, and suggested I use the internal Conservative party complaint process. 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.”
Meanwhile the Conservative backbencher MP Michael Fabricant caused fresh controversy by saying it was unlikely Ghani was discriminated against for her faith, because “she’s hardly someone who’s obviously a Muslim”.
In the latest of a series of media appearances apparently aimed at shoring up Johnson’s position, Fabricant told LBC: “I think the whole thing actually stinks, the accusation being made by Nus Ghani.”
The outspoken backbencher said: “Prejudice of any kind in modern Britain is pretty pathetic … but you know, ministers they come and they go.”
“She’s hardly someone who’s obviously a Muslim. I mean I had no idea what religion she is,” he continued. “The Labour MP Keith Vaz, who was of South Asian origin, I do know because we discussed it, he’s a Goan Christian; others are Hindus, others are Muslims or whatever. But with her, it wasn’t apparent. So it does seem rather a lame excuse to me that she claims she was sacked because of that.”
Fabricant’s remarks were quickly condemned by opposition politicians. The shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, said: “What an appalling, disgraceful thing to say. If the Tories wanted to show they were serious about tackling Islamophobia, they could start by removing the whip from Michael Fabricant.”
There are growing calls for an inquiry into Ghani’s claims, with the cabinet ministers Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid tweeting their support for her. Zahawi, the education secretary, called Ghani “a friend, a colleague & a brilliant parliamentarian”, adding: “This has to be investigated properly & racism routed out.”
The deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, on Sunday urged Ghani to make a formal complaint to the Conservative party, which she had previously decided not to do – and has now made clear she does not think is appropriate.
Calling the allegations “incredibly serious”, Raab declined to say whether he believed his former government colleague, adding that he was “not going to get into impugning anyone’s integrity”.
Raab said there would be no investigation by the Conservative party unless she submitted a formal complaint.
The chief whip, Mark Spencer, rejected the claim, saying Ghani’s account of events, in an interview with the Sunday Times, was “completely false”.
Ghani told the paper that when she lost her job as a transport minister during a reshuffle in 2020, she was told that “Muslimness” had been raised as a problem at a meeting in Downing Street.
“It was like being punched in the stomach,” she said. “I felt humiliated and powerless. 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.”
Asked if he believed Ghani, Raab told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday show: “It is incredibly serious – let me just be clear at the outset. We have absolutely zero tolerance for any discrimination, any Islamophobia, in the Conservative party.”
He went on: “On these specific allegations, it’s very unusual, but the chief whip has come out and said the conversation concerned was with him, Mark Spencer. He has categorically denied in what can only be described as the most forthright and robust terms, calling it defamatory.