The British Education Secretary has publicly backed a full investigation into an allegation that a female Conservative MP was sacked as a Cabinet minister because of her Muslim faith.
Nadhim Zahawi has called for an inquiry after Nusrat Ghani said she had lost her job as a transport minister after a government whip claimed her “Muslimness” was a problem that was “making colleagues uncomfortable”.
Ms Ghani, 49, who was the first female Muslim to speak at the British Parliament's dispatch box, made her claim to The Sunday Times, putting further pressure on UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s weakened government.
Mr Zahawi said there was no place for Islamophobia in the party and the allegations must be “investigated properly and racism rooted out”.
But Chief Whip Mark Spencer identified himself as the person who spoke to Ms Ghani and denied using the words claimed.
“To ensure other whips are not drawn into this matter, I am identifying myself as the person Nusrat Ghani MP has made claims about this evening,” he said in a tweet on Saturday. “These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory. I have never used those words attributed to me,” he tweeted.
Ms Ghani, the MP for Wealden, East Sussex, was shocked when her faith was raised during a meeting in the whips’ office after a mini-reshuffle in February 2020.
“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’.
“It was very clear to me that the whips and No 10 were holding me to a higher threshold of loyalty than others because of my background and faith."
She said she was also told if she raised the issue her career and reputation would be destroyed.
William Wragg, a senior Tory who raised issues over blackmail by whips last week, defended Ms Ghani.
“Nus is very brave to speak out. I was truly appalled to learn of her experience. She shows such strength and integrity supporting others,” he tweeted.
Ms Ghani and Mr Wragg are vice-chairwoman and vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs. The group provides a space for less senior politicians in the party to discuss issues.
Mr Wragg last week accused No 10 of trying to “blackmail” MPs seeking to oust Mr Johnson as Prime Minister.
But another Conservative MP has said that Ms Ghani’s claim “stinks”.
Michael Fabricant said the timing of her claim was “very suspicious” and suggested it was linked to moves to get rid of Mr Johnson over the Downing Street lockdown parties scandal.
He said Ms Ghani was not “obviously” a Muslim, and it was “lame” to claim that that was the reason she was fired as a transport minster. But Labour described his comments as shameful and called for the Conservative whip to be withdrawn.
“The timing is interesting. I think all this is because it’s open season on Boris Johnson, putting pressure on him from the party trying to get him to resign," Mr Fabricant told LBC.
“I think the whole thing actually stinks, the accusation being made by Nus Ghani.
“She’s hardly someone who is obviously a Muslim. I had no idea what religion she is. It does seem rather a lame excuse to me that she was sacked because of that.”
In response, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy tweeted: “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.”
Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said the response of the Conservatives to Ms Ghani’s claims was shameful.
“For a Conservative MP, Michael Fabricant, to go on the radio and make comments that reflect exactly the sort of unacceptable behaviour Nusrat has raised shows just how deep the problem in the Conservative Party goes,” she said.
The row comes as Mr Johnson faces what could be a defining week in his political career, with senior civil servant Sue Gray expected to deliver her report after investigating the lockdown parties in Downing Street.