Boris Johnson has said he is taking an allegation from a Conservative MP that she was sacked as a minister because of her Muslim faith “extremely seriously”.
A Cabinet Office investigation has been ordered by the prime minister after Nusrat Ghani, who was sacked as transport minister in a February 2020 reshuffle, made her claim at the weekend.
Ms Ghani said she was told by a whip, who she did not identify, that her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” at a meeting in Downing Street.
She said she was also 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 allegations”.
Asked about the allegation on Monday, Mr Johnson said: “We take these allegations extremely seriously, I took them very seriously when they were raised with me 18 months ago… very glad there’s an investigation taking place now.
“I can’t say more, really, about it.”
In the immediate aftermath of Ms Ghani’s comments, chief whip Mark Spencer said he was the whip in question.
He described her allegations as “completely false”, adding: “I consider them to be defamatory. I have never used those words attributed to me.”
Asked if Mr Spencer could stay in his role while the inquiry is carried out, the PM said: “This is something I take personally extremely seriously, I took it very seriously 18 months ago, we must wait and see what the investigation produces.”
Ms Ghani has also claimed that when she raised the matter directly with the PM, he told her he could not get involved.
Number 10 says PM told MP to make formal complaint
“At the time these allegations were first made, the prime minister recommended to her that she make a formal complaint to CCHQ. She did not take up this offer,” a Number 10 spokesperson said.
“The prime minister has now asked officials to establish the facts about what happened.
“As he said at the time, the prime minister takes these claims very seriously.”
Responding to the launch of an investigation, Ms Ghani said she welcomed the news.
“The terms of reference of the inquiry must include all that was said in Downing Street and by the whip,” she wrote on Twitter.
“I look forward to seeing the terms of reference.”
Minister says ‘we need to get to the bottom of this’
Speaking to Sky News shortly after the inquiry was announced, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said Ms Ghani has made a “very serious allegation”.
“She put out a statement last night saying actually, to be fair to her, this could be people who weren’t even members of the Conservative Party, which is why we need to get to the bottom of this very quickly,” he told Kay Burley.
“And of course the chief whip has come out and named himself as the individual and I work with both colleagues, and I think it is important that someone like a Cabinet Office senior civil servant should look at this properly, because the chief whip has also categorically denied this.”
The development comes at the start of what is shaping up to be a crucial week for the PM and his future in Downing Street.
Another Cabinet Office inquiry, into parties and gatherings in Downing Street and other government departments during COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021, is due to be released.
Depending on what the report finds, it could see Tory MPs push for a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson.
PM ‘only acting’ because issue has surfaced in media – Lib Dems
Labour’s Anneliese Dodds, shadow women and equalities secretary, said the Conservatives were “incapable of leading the country”.
“In the midst of a cost of living crisis, the government is once again having to spend its time investigating the behaviour of the PM and those around him,” she said.
Liberal Democrat MP and foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said the PM was “only acting now the issue has surfaced in the media”.
“This is typical of the cynicism we’ve come to expect of Johnson, acting only when he thinks it’s necessary to save his own skin,” she said.