Sun, 19 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Downing Street Under Attack Over "Lacking" Race Row Response

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking during PMQs (Alamy)

3 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under pressure to improve his tactics for handling a crisis as Conservative MPs and party figures complained that the Frank Hester race row was the latest example of Downing Street's inability to dig itself out of a hole.

Hester, the Conservative party's biggest donor, said Diane Abbott, the UK's longest serving black MP, "should be shot" and that the MP made him "want to hate all black women" in a meeting five years ago, according to The Guardian.

Initially the Prime Minister's official spokesperson described the remarks as "unacceptable" rather than racist, while senior Tories resisted calls from broadcasters to explicitly condemn the comments in such terms. It was not until many hours later, after several prominent Conservatives — including Kemi Badenoch, the Secretary State for Business and Trade — characterised the donor's remarks as racist that Downing Street hardened their line. 

Conservative figures are now deeply frustrated that the episode represents the latest example of Downing Street failing to get a grip on a crisis and eclipsing any positive messages they desperately need to get across to voters. As well as finding themselves engulfed in a racism row, Conservative MPs fear that the economy and Sunak's plans to tackle extremism have taken a back seat. 

Albie Amankona, chief executive and co-founder of Conservatives Against Racism, told PoliticsHome he was frustrated that Tory high command appeared to repeatedly struggle with its communications operation when incidents involving race arose.  

"I don't know why it keeps happening. It's not like there are not people that do take the correct line when this sort of thing happens," Amankona said. 

"They have this ridiculous line of 'it was offensive, it was inappropriate — but it wasn't racist. But it wasn't transphobic. But it wasn't anti Muslim, or whatever they want to call Islamophobia. It wasn't homophobic. It was just offensive and rude."

A senior Tory agreed "they really ought to have had a better answer" when the comments about Abbott emerged. 

“The idea that it wasn’t racist given what he said is one of the most implausible denials I have ever heard, and why couldn’t we come and say it was racist and that we abhor it, but that he had apologised and shown remorse, I really don’t know," they told PoliticsHome.

The same Conservative MP seemed exasperated that this was not the first time that Sunak's No 10 had struggled with a damaging story, and that it has prompted questions about Downing Street's overall performance.

Only last month, the Prime Minister faced criticism over handling of comments by Lee Anderson that suggested "Islamists" had "got control” of both London Mayor Sadiq Khan and of the capital. No 10 initially wouldn't describe Anderson's remarks as racist, before characterising them as "anti-Muslim". Anderson lost the Tory whip after refusing to apologise, and has now defected to Richard Tice's right-wing Reform party.

A senior Tory source said recent incidents illustrate that the Sunak operation is currently "lacking" in political nous. 

"You need to really understand if you throw the ball one way, where it is going to land. It takes a particular type of skill, which I think we're probably lacking," they said.

The Hester story was showing no signs of completely going away on Wednesday afternoon, with the Prime Minister facing growing pressure to return the £10m donation given to the Tory party by the major donor in the last year. 

A spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives today urged the wider UK Tory party to "carefully review" the money it has received from Hester, whose remarks about MP Abbott they described as "racist and wrong".

Speaking before MPs on the Treasury committee this afternoon, Chancellor Hunt appeared to rule out returning the donation despite Hester's "despicable" comments. "I don't believe that someone should be cancelled for a comment they made in the past and for which they have apologised," he said in a response to Labour MP Angela Eagle.

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