London (Reuters) – A British lawmaker has said she was fired from a ministerial job in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government partly because her Muslim faith was making colleagues uncomfortable, the Sunday Times reported.
The allegation added to the turmoil Johnson’s government is facing over parties held at his Downing Street office during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Nusrat Ghani, 49, who lost her job as a junior transport minister in February 2020, told the paper that she had been told by a “whip” – an enforcer of parliamentary discipline – that her “Muslimness” had been raised as an issue in her sacking.
The government’s chief whip, Mark Spencer, said he was the person at the centre of Ghani’s allegations.
“These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory,” he said on Twitter. “I have never used those words attributed to me.”
Johnson met Ghani to discuss the “extremely serious” claims in July 2020, a spokesperson from the prime minister’s office said on Sunday.
“He then wrote to her expressing his serious concern and inviting her to begin a formal complaint process,” the spokesperson said. “She did not subsequently do so.”
“The Conservative Party does not tolerate prejudice or discrimination of any kind.”
Ghani said in response that the Conservative Party complaint process was “very clearly not appropriate” because her dismissal related to her position in the government, rather than in the party.
“Now is not the time I would have chosen for this to come out and I have pursued every avenue and process I thought available to me, but many people have known what happened,” she added in a statement.
Ghani’s allegation came after one of her Conservative colleagues said he would meet police to discuss accusations that government whips had attempted to “blackmail” lawmakers suspected of trying to force Johnson from office over the lockdown parties.
The scandals have drained public support from both Johnson personally and his party, presenting him with the most serious crisis of his premiership. read more
“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,” the paper quoted Ghani as saying.
“I will not pretend that this hasn’t shaken my faith in the party and I have at times seriously considered whether to continue as an MP (member of parliament).”
In his response, Spencer said Ghani had declined to put the matter to a formal internal investigation.
The Conservative Party has previously faced accusations of Islamophobia, and a report in May last year criticised it over how it dealt with complaints of discrimination against Muslims.
The report also led Johnson to issue a qualified apology for any offence caused by his past remarks about Islam, including a newspaper column in which he referred to women wearing burqas as “going around looking like letterboxes”.
The main opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said the Conservatives must investigate Ghani’s account immediately.
“This is shocking to read,” he said on Twitter.
Ghani’s comments about the whips’ behaviour echoed allegations last week from another senior Conservative, William Wragg, that some of his colleagues had faced intimidation and blackmail because of their desire to topple Johnson.
He has told the Daily Telegraph that he would meet the police early next week to discuss his allegations.
Johnson has said he had neither seen nor heard any evidence to support Wragg’s claims. His office has said it would look at any such evidence “very carefully”.
Johnson, who in 2019 won his party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years, is fighting to shore up his authority after the “partygate” scandals, which followed criticism of the government’s handling of a corruption row and other missteps.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is expected to deliver a report into the parties next week, with many Conservative lawmakers saying they will await her findings before deciding whether they will take action to topple Johnson.