The past few weeks have been a time of discovery for the Conservative party and its supporters. Some Tories as senior as the prime minister himself learned that work events they attended may have, in fact, been boozy parties. Others found out that a man known to be a liar may have, in fact, lied. And now it appears there might be a spot of trouble with Islamophobia. As with “partygate”, the people concerned are appalled by the allegations, are demanding investigations, are asking us to respect the process, and are generally pleading ignorance. Of course, the ignorance in this context is not theirs but ours. For if news of the partying and the alleged discrimination were not leaked to the press, then none of it would really have happened. Just trees falling in silent forests.
The allegation comes from the Tory MP Nusrat Ghani, who says that when she was sacked as a junior transport minister in a reshuffle in 2020, party whips told her that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”. The first time this tree fell, Johnson not only heard it, but was informed by Ghani personally. She wrote on Twitter that the prime minister said that “he could not get involved and suggested I use the internal Conservative party complaints process. This, as I had already pointed out, was very clearly not appropriate for something that happened on government business.”
Understandably, she did not follow the internal party inquiry route, and so her extremely serious allegation was forgotten. Now Ghani’s claim has become the subject of a formal inquiry launched by Johnson himself. As it turns out, he could get involved after all.
Still, we’ll take it. This is a brief window in which Johnson feels fragile and the Tory-supporting press feels comfortable criticising its man. This means the allegation has the potential to become something that has consequences. It’s a remote possibility, but the fact that it’s on the cards at all seems like a blessing in a country where allegations of Islamophobia within the Conservative party are regularly dismissed, minimised or ignored. The dossier of incidents grows year by year. There was the Singh investigation, which was condemned as a whitewash; the quiet reinstatements of Tory councillors suspended after posting vile comments about Muslims, Arabs, and Asians; and the government’s rejection in 2019 of a working definition of Islamophobia adopted by the major opposition parties.
Then there is the long record of incidents involving people whose careers have been wrecked for trying to challenge anti-Muslim prejudice, or, more often than not, saved despite the allegations levelled against them. Sayeeda Warsi has been fruitlessly raising the issue of Islamophobia in general for more than a decade, and in the Conservative party in particular since at least the shameful 2016 London mayoral campaign that Zac Goldsmith waged against Sadiq Khan, in which he accused him of being a threat to London due to implied extremist links. It was a campaign that has had little effect on Goldsmith’s trajectory: after losing his parliamentary seat in 2019, he was appointed to the House of Lords. The campaign was advised by the firm co-founded by Lynton Crosby, a man who, in fine Tory form from the start, also advised Boris Johnson when he was running for mayor, and is reported to have told him to not get hung up on seeking support from “fucking Muslims”.
Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign, Johnson’s comments on Muslim women, and their careers since then (as well as Crosby’s, who was knighted in 2016), are only a handful of examples of the shocking passes the party has given for Islamophobia in recent years. Every time this makes the news, Muslims in the party, and Muslim members of the public, issue a cry of distress. If they’re lucky, this gets them a sceptical and combative hearing in the media before the news cycle moves on.
Every time, the hearing gets shorter and more perfunctory – a groundhog day in which the fears of Muslims and the realities about hate crime and professional discrimination are brought to the public’s attention, and then dispatched, unaddressed. With every occasion on which nothing changes, Tory Islamophobia is normalised a little bit more; when the next story comes round, it feels slightly less shocking. That applies both to the public and to the victims themselves. I still seethe at the memory of Goldsmith’s campaign, but the futility of the anger has dulled the second healthy, useful part of rage, where one seeks redress, justice and assurances that it won’t happen again.
But it will happen again. Because the painful truth about Tory Islamophobia is that it is endorsed by too many voters for it to be a political issue that could really hurt the party; polling from 2019 showed that more than half of Conservative party members believe that Islam is a threat to British values. I hope Ghani receives a rare taste of that redress and apology. But as with all the recent epiphanies about the nature of the Conservatives, the challenge remains far deeper and more complex than anything that could be resolved by the fall of a single person or the clean-up after a single inquiry. Whenever the mirror is finally held up to the Conservative party, for however fleeting a moment, we only see ourselves.