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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Tory Unease Over Party's Donor Race Row Response Is Growing

Diane Abbott has described the Frank Hester's remarks as "frightening". (Alamy)

5 min read

Fresh discontent is brewing among Conservatives over Downing Street's response to the party's biggest donor reportedly making racist remarks about black MP Diane Abbott.

On Monday The Guardian reported Frank Hester – who has donated £10m to the Conservative party in the last year – made the remarks during a meeting in 2019, where he allegedly said he believed Abbott, the UK's longest serving black MP, "should be shot" and made him "want to hate all black women". 

“It’s like trying not to be racist but you see Diane Abbott on the TV and you’re just like, I hate, you just want to hate all black women because she’s there, and I don’t hate all black women at all, but I think she should be shot," Hester reportedly said.

In a statement Abbot described Hester's alleged remarks as "frightening". She added that "the fact that two MPs have been murdered in recent years makes talk like this all the more alarming."

In a post on X on Tuesday afternoon, Trade secretary and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch said the remarks were "racist", but felt "there needs to be space for forgiveness where there is contrition". 

"Hester’s 2019 comments, as reported, were racist," said Badenoch. "I welcome his apology. Abbott and I disagree on a lot. But the idea of linking criticism of her, to being a black woman is appalling."

In a statement following The Guardian's report, Hester said he accepted he was "rude about Diane Abbott in a private meeting" but claimed it "had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin". 

While a number of senior Tories have condemend the language reportedly used by Hester, they have fallen short of describing the Tory donor's remarks as racist. Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride instead said the comments were "inappropriate". 

"I think the critical point here, is that I don't think what he was saying was a gender based or a race based comment. But it was clearly inappropriate, he has apologised, and I think we need to move on from that."

But some Tory MPs have expressed unease at the party not outright condemning the remarks. A senior minister told PoliticsHome they believed the remarks were racist.

Former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng  told the BBC's Politics Live on Tuesday afternoon the remarks were "clearly racist" and "clearly sexist".

"I think Diane was right to point out the call to violence," he said. "Even in a flippant way, is really inappropropriate. They were very stupid remarks. Clearly what's been reported is racist, sexist, and totally unacceptable."

Albie Amankona, chief executive of Conservatives Against Racism For Equality and member of the 2022 Group of black Conservatives, told PoliticsHome the Conservative party's response to Hester's remarks had been "ridiculous".

"It was not acceptable to me for ministers to go out on the airwaves and say 'I think it was deeply offensive and rude' but not able to utter the words: 'It was a racist comment'.

"It kind of reminded me of when you would have ministers going out on the airwaves to defend Boris Johnson towards the end of his premiership, going out and defending the indefensible – just saying stupid things, looking like a fool.

"Everyone that I've spoken to thinks it's a racist comment. So why are [they] sending out a minister to go on the media and not just say: 'it was a racist comment'?"

Frank Hester
Frank Hester reportedly donated £10m to the Conservative party in the last year. (Alamy)

Amankona said it was part of a broader issue in the party when it comes managing "bigotry related" incidents from a public relations perspective. His concern is shared by others who have worked at a senior communications level within the party, who fear there is a lack of experience at senior levels at managing responses to incidents like this. 

"I don't know why they continue to do this ridiculous communication strategy when something race related or bigotry related happens within the party, they have this ridiculous line which is: 'it was offensive, inappropriate, and rude – but it wasn't racist, but it wasn't transphobic, but it wasn't anti-Muslim'," he said. 

Amankona also said he believed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would have to describe the remarks as racist at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.  

"If he doesn't say that it's a racist comment tomorrow then that's going to be a problem, a real problem," Amankona said.

"If he is in parliament tomorrow and Keir Starmer asks him if he thinks what was said was a racist comment or not, and he's not able to just say a straight 'yes' there will be quite profound difficulties for him – regarding his support going forwards from parts of the party, and indeed the country." 

Former Conservative MP Alastair Burt told PoliticsHome the £10m donation made by Hester should be returned and that the reported comments were "racist" and "violent". 

"He referred to Diane as a black woman – that strikes me as both race and gender based, and I don't think there is any evading that in any response," Burt said. 

"The second thing is the comments about violence; and all of us in parliament have lived with losing friends and colleagues to violence over a number of years for different reasons – but in recent times that the hands of extremists.

"Anything that plays into that is something that no political party should have anything to do with."

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