A Conservative MP who says she was told by a government whip that she had lost her ministerial role because her Muslim faith was “making colleagues uncomfortable” should make a formal complaint about the incident, Dominic Raab has said.
Calling the allegations by Nusrat Ghani “incredibly serious”, Raab, the justice secretary and deputy prime minister, declined to say whether he believed his former government colleague, saying he was “not going to get into impugning anyone’s integrity”.
Raab said that while Ghani’s allegation was “incredibly serious” there would be no investigation by the Conservative party unless she submitted a formal complaint, which she had not done.
The chief whip, Mark Spencer, rejected the claim, saying Ghani’s account of events, in an interview with the Sunday Times, was “completely false”.
Ghani told the paper that when she lost her job as a transport minister during a reshuffle in 2020, she was told that “Muslimness” had been raised as a problem at a meeting in Downing Street.
“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.”
Asked if he believed Ghani, Raab told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday show: “It is incredibly serious – let me just be clear at the outset. We have absolutely zero tolerance for any discrimination, any Islamophobia, in the Conservative party.”
He went on: “On these specific allegations, it’s very unusual, but the chief whip has come out and said the conversation concerned was with him, Mark Spencer. He has categorically denied in what can only be described as the most forthright and robust terms, calling it defamatory.
“The one point I would note is that if there are any claims like this, they should result in a formal complaint which allows a formal investigation to take place. As the chief whip has pointed out, Nus hasn’t made a formal complaint. She was asked to do so. This relates back to 2020. And in the absence of doing so, there will be no specific investigation into this.”
No 10 subsequently issued a statement saying that Boris Johnson had met Ghani in July 2020 to discuss her claims, and had encouraged her to make an official complaint.
A No 10 spokesperson said: “After being made aware of these extremely serious claims, the prime minister met with Nusrat Ghani to discuss them. He then wrote to her expressing his serious concern and inviting her to begin a formal complaint process. She did not subsequently do so. The Conservative party does not tolerate prejudice or discrimination of any kind.”
Asked who he believed, Raab declined to say. “I’m not going to get into that. What that gives is everyone headlines, whereas actually I want to tackle the issue. I think if there’s any claim like this, a formal complaint should be made, and as the chief whip has said, Nus was invited to make a formal complaint. She still is able to do so. She hasn’t yet done so. I’m not going to get into impugning anyone’s integrity.”
Asked about the wider stream of damaging allegations connected to Downing Street, including an imminent report into claims of lockdown-breaking parties, and allegations by some Tory MPs that whips tried to blackmail or threaten them to make them fall in line, Raab said such issues were “a distraction”, and of little interest to most voters.
Pressed on the report into the parties, by the senior civil servant Sue Gray, Raab said: “I accept the seriousness of the issue. That’s why Sue Gray should be able to determine who, when and how she investigates. But I would point to the decisions we made this week – the success of the vaccine rollout, the measures to open up the economy.”
Speaking to the Sunday Times, Ghani said it was made clear to her “that the whips and No 10 were holding me to a higher threshold of loyalty than others because of my background and faith”.
After the story was published, Spencer tweeted: “To ensure other whips are not drawn into this matter, I am identifying myself as the person Nusrat Ghani MP has made claims about.
“These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory. I have never used those words attributed to me.”
Spencer added: “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.”