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‘The Normalisation of Politically Expedient Racism: Rishi Sunak Cannot Call Out Something He Has Been Complicit In’

Lee Anderson’s claims that the Muslim Mayor of London has handed the city to Islamists is another unsurprising example of the political culture the Conservative Party has normalised, writes Hardeep Matharu  

Lee Anderson and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Photo: Jacob King/PA/Alamy

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The Prime Minister’s response to claims by his party’s former vice-chair that the Muslim Mayor of London has let the city been taken over by “Islamists” has been to refuse to acknowledge the racism of his comments. Instead, he repeated a well-worn statement: that the UK is the “most successful multi-ethnic democracy in the world”.

These words do nothing to address how and why Conservative politicians have normalised a political culture in which racist dog-whistle politics is still seen as acceptable. Not reasoned discussions about extremism – but emotionally-charged and racially-activating comments designed to provoke controversy, hate and division. 

Rishi Sunak won’t say whether he believes Lee Anderson, who lost the Conservative whip following his claims about Labour’s Sadiq Khan, was driven by racism in making the remarks.

But he has pointed to how proud he was to become the UK’s first Asian Prime Minister and how this had occurred without it being of note.

“That’s because we have a way of doing these things, of respecting everyone, and at the same time ensuring that everyone integrates into our community and subscribes to a common set of British values,” he added. And that’s why… racism or prejudice of any kind is completely unacceptable.”

These are the same vague lines we hear every time issues of race become a ‘flashpoint’; when underlying realities briefly catch the attention of politicians and media outlets usually only too willing to refuse to engage.

But claims about Britain’s ‘better nature’ do nothing to address a political culture in which issues such as Islamophobia are seen as a way to advance political capital – and specifically how the Conservative Party has been at the forefront of its normalisation.

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Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – the first Muslim to serve as a Cabinet minister in David Cameron’s Government – has spoken many times in recent years of how she doesn’t recognise the elements of her party taking this route. For her, Anderson’s comments showed how the Conservative Party sees Muslims as “fair game” and “convenient electoral campaign fodder”.

Anderson’s comments are also indicative of a deeper, perhaps narrow but emboldened, current within the party that has never been afraid to vocalise such sentiments – from the very top.

It was the former Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who wrote of “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and Muslim women looking like “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”.

His Vote Leave campaign, which Johnson led with Michael Gove, claimed Turkey would soon be joining the EU and was unafraid of peddling a xenophobic and anti-immigration message during the Brexit Referendum.

Accusations of institutional Islamophobia in the Conservatives – including most recently by the vice-chair of the influential 1922 Committee, Nusrat Ghani – remain unscrutinised, even if dismissed by the party. 

At the top of Sunak’s priorities is the controversial Rwanda scheme, ruled unlawful by the UK’s Supreme Court, which was initiated by former Home Secretary Priti Patel (a policy one seasoned and senior Brexit-supporting Conservative MP told me was “the concentration camp scheme”). 

Patel’s successor at the Home Office Suella Braverman – who Sunak was happy to bring back into government when he became Prime Minister – has made a number of inflammatory statements during her tenure and since, including falsely claiming that child grooming gangs in the UK are “almost all British-Pakistani” (despite the Home Office’s own research finding that the majority of offenders are white).

These are just a few examples, from the Conservative Party itself, which have contributed to a culture in which Lee Anderson had no qualms about claiming that the London Mayor has handed the cities to Islamists. 

Then there are the elements within the party only too willing to stand alongside the likes of Nigel Farage and his friend, alt-right strategist Steve Bannon – who has baselessly ‘predicted’ that there will be a nationalist uprising in Britain to install Farage as Prime Minister.


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Whether these dog whistles are sounded for political capital with the public at large, with Conservative Party members in the country, for reasons of leadership ambitions, or in the myopia of a ‘culture war’ perpetuated by politicians and media outlets far detached from the actual views of the vast majority of people in this country, the effect is the same: the normalisation of the weaponisation of hate.

In 2021, Peter Jukes and I spoke to former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve on Byline TV about how such a culture was being normalised by his party under Boris Johnson, who had expelled him and a number of ‘One Nation’ Conservatives. 

“If you are pandering to people’s prejudices, because it is a way of getting short-term fixes, to your lack of policy and your being a shambles, it’s inevitably going to take you down this road,” he said. 

“As an MP, people come in [to see you] and feel angry or unhappy or upset and want change. And, generally speaking, the Conservative Party has seen itself as absorbing this, by acting as a check and moderator. 

“If you decide to no longer be a moderator, because it suits your short-term agenda, to cover-up for the shambles, then that’s the route down which you’re going to be pushed.”

Downing Street is today be briefing that “we don’t tolerate any anti-Muslim hatred in any form” – once again ignoring how it has normalised a political culture in which anti-Muslim dog whistles have been tolerated for far too long. 

The truth is that strategically deployed racism has long been seen as a political tool. Rishi Sunak, as our first Asian Prime Minister of a party that has normalised its use, cannot call out something he has been complicit in. 

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