Nusrat Ghani, a Muslim Conservative MP in the UK Parliament, has alleged that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s whip referred to her “Muslimness” while sacking her in 2020.
On Monday, Johnson launched a Cabinet Office inquiry into these allegations, after Ghani accused the Prime Minister of showing unwillingness to “get involved.” A spokesperson of Downing Street said Johnson “has asked officials to establish the facts about what happened…As he said at the time, the prime minister takes these claims very seriously”.
Ghani has welcomed the decision, stating, “As I said to the Prime Minister last night all I want is for this to be taken seriously and for him to investigate. I welcome his decision to do that now. The terms of reference of the inquiry must include all that was said in Downing Street and by the Whip.”
The controversy comes as Johnson and No 10 – a colloquial term for the official residence of the UK Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street – are already facing another inquiry over the alleged parties that flouted Covid-19 norms.
What has Nusrat Ghani alleged?
In a report published by a leading British weekly newspaper, the Conservative MP from Wealden claimed that she was told that her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” at a meeting in Downing Street. She was told that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel 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 allegation.”
“It was like being punched in the stomach. I felt humiliated and powerless,” Ghani is quoted as saying in the report.
Ghani was sacked from her post as transport minister in February 2020, as part of Johnson’s first Cabinet reshuffle after being elected as Prime Minister in December 2019. The Guardian had reported at the time that Ghani was replaced “without explanation.” The move had come as a surprise to political watchers as she had been commended for her work for HS2, a high-speed railway line that seeks to connect London with major cities of England.
The MP on a Twitter post on Sunday said that in June 2020 she had apprised Johnson of the statement made in the Whips’ Office. “…I urged him to take it seriously as a Government matter and instigate an inquiry. He wrote to me that he could not get involved and suggested I use the internal Conservative Party complaint process. This, as I had already pointed out, was very clearly not appropriate for something that happened on Government business — I don’t even know if the words that were conveyed to me about what was said in reshuffle meetings at Downing Street were by members of the Conservative Party.”
“In my statement yesterday, I was careful not to mention any names or implicate the Prime Minister. All I have ever wanted was for his Government to take this seriously, investigate properly and ensure no other colleague has to endure this,” she added.
A woman of firsts and vocal critique of discrimination against Muslims
Born in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Nusrat, 49, went on to become the first female Muslim Minister to speak from the House of Commons after becoming the Transport Minister under Theresa May in 2018. She was elected as Wealden’s MP in 2015 – the first female to do so and the first Muslim woman to become the party’s MP. She surprised many by taking her oath in Urdu and English while being sworn into Parliament in 2017.
Ghani has been vocal about atrocities faced by Muslims across the world. Most recently, on January 20, she brought up the December 2021 Uyghur Tribunal’s judgment in the Parliament, stating that it had “found beyond reasonable doubt that the People’s Republic of China was responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and torture in the Uyghur region.” She held that “the Government has a legal and moral duty to respond to the Uyghur Tribunal’s verdict and the evidence that was put before it. They must stop shirking that duty by using expensive Government lawyers to weasel their way out of acting—a course of action that is truly reprehensible.”
Following this, a motion was passed in Parliament, for the government to assess “whether it considers there to be a serious risk of genocide in the Uyghur region and to present its findings to the House within two months”.
In March last year, she became one of nine individuals in the UK, against whom China introduced sanctions over what it called “lies and disinformation” about Xinjiang. These individuals and their families were barred from entering China.
She has also been vocal about the crisis in Afghanistan and the discrimination faced by Rohingya Muslims in the Parliament.
In 2017, Ghani contributed to a debate in the House over alleged human rights violations in Kashmir.
Response to Ghani’s allegations
Responding to Ghani’s claims in the newspaper report, Chief Whip and Conservative MP for Sherwood Mike Spencer took to Twitter, identifying himself as the “the person Nusrat Ghani MP has made claims about this evening.”
He called the accusations “completely false” and “defamatory”. “I have never used those words attributed to me,” Spencer asserted.
The Sherwood MP 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. I provided evidence to the Singh Investigation into Islamophobia which concluded that there was no credible basis for the claims to be included in the report. These claims relate to a meeting in March 2020. When Ms Ghani raised them, she was invited to use the formal CCHQ (Conservative Campaign Headquarters) complaints procedure. She declined to do so.”
A similar response was given by No 10 in a statement quoted by The Guardian. “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,” it read.
The allegations also invited a much-criticised reaction from another Conservative MP, Michael Fabricant, who on LBC news, a radio station in the UK, dismissed Ghani’s allegations because “She’s hardly someone who’s obviously a Muslim. I mean I had no idea what religion she is”. In a tweet, he wrote, “A former minister who had been plotting against #Boris for some time now suddenly blames her sacking on #Islamophobia when (a) there are many excellent Muslim ministers in the Government and (b) she was nice but unimaginative and mediocre. (sic)”
The response received severe criticism from MPs and social media users alike. Anneliese Dodds, a Labour party MP, said, “These offensive comments reflect exactly the sort of unacceptable behaviour Nusrat Ghani raised. No one should question her right to be heard as a Muslim woman and no one should face discrimination at work for their religion.”
Ghani has received support from two senior Muslim Conservative Party MPs, Sajid Javid and Nadhim Zahawi. Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, called her a “friend and a credit to the Conservative Party.” He added, “This is a very serious matter which needs a proper investigation. I would strongly support her in making a formal complaint — she must be heard.”
The Singh Investigation and its report on racial discrimination in the Conservative Party
The Chief Whip alluded to the Singh Investigation in his tweets against Ghani. It refers to an independent investigation set up by the Conservative Party in May 2020, after it was accused of failing to address allegations of Islamophobia. The inquiry was chaired by Professor Swaran Singh and examined evidence related to alleged discrimination against party members and volunteers from 2015 to 2020.
In May 2021, the final report was published, which concluded that while there was no evidence of systemic or institutional racism in the party, “anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem within the Party. This is damaging to the Party, and alienates a significant section of society.”
The report also stated that the party’s complaint system was “in need of overhaul”, adding that “there has been lack of transparency in the complaints process, with no clear decision-making process as to how complaints should progress; and no specified time frames for resolution.”
According to several reports at the time, Muslim MPs of the party had expressed disappointment over the findings, calling Singh’s report “white-washed”. A Muslim advocacy group in the UK, MEND, said that the investigation’s focus on the complaints procedures failed to address the “pervasive atmosphere of Islamophobia that fuels such complaints and which allows entrenched Islamophobic sentiments to fester”.