The civil war within the UK’s ruling Conservative party deepened on Sunday as a former minister accused whips of Islamophobia after she was sacked and warned not to discuss the matter in public.
Nusrat Ghani, who served as a transport minister from January 2018 until February 2020, alleged that she was told by a Tory whip that her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” by Downing Street for her firing. She added that the whip told her that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”.
Ghani, 49, told the Sunday Times she felt “humiliated and powerless” after the episode and was warned not to discuss the issue or her “career and reputation would be destroyed”. She added: “I will not pretend that this hasn’t shaken my faith in the party”.
The claim comes as the Tories prepare for the expected publication this week of senior official Sue Gray’s report into alleged partying in Downing Street during lockdowns. The affair has prompted a number of Tory MPs to submit letters of no confidence in Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Downing Street said Johnson met Ghani on July 1 2020 after he was made aware of “these extremely serious claims” and wrote to her on July 10 “expressing his serious concern and inviting her to begin a formal complaint process”. Number 10 added: “The Conservative party does not tolerate prejudice or discrimination of any kind.”
Mark Spencer, chief whip, identified himself as the whip she spoke to in March 2020 but described her comments as “completely false” and “defamatory”.
“It is disappointing that when this issue was raised before Ms Ghani declined to refer the matter to the Conservative party for a formal investigation,” he tweeted.
Spencer added: “I provided evidence to the Singh Investigation into Islamophobia which concluded that there was no credible basis for the claims.”
But Ghani was defended by education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who called for the allegations to be “investigated properly” and “racism routed out”.
He tweeted with a hashtag #standwithNus, “there is no place for islamophobia or any form of racism in our Conservatives party. Nus Ghani is a friend, a colleague and a brilliant parliamentarian.
Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister, told Sky News the allegations were “incredibly serious” but pointed out that she had declined to make a formal complaint.
“It is very unusual that the chief whip has come out and . . . categorically denied it in what can only be described as the most forthright and robust terms,” he said.
Several other prominent Conservatives expressed support for Ghani. Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, called for an inquiry into the allegations. “There is no place for racism in Conservatives.” Steve Baker, a prominent backbench MP, described her remarks as “completely intolerable” and said: “We must get to the bottom of it.”
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, expressed solidarity with Ghani and blamed a culture “set at the top”. He said: “There’s report after report of appalling behaviour and lack of respect at the centre of this government.”
Meanwhile Christian Wakeford, who defected to the Labour party from the Tories last week, named former education secretary and chief whip Gavin Williamson as the whip who threatened to cancel the construction of a new school if he did “not vote in one particular way”.
Wakeford told the Sunday Times, that Williamson told him: “It’s not very helpful to back an opposition [motion] against the department where you’re wanting an extremely large favour from said department, so do consider what you’re doing.”
Williamson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.