A Cabinet Office investigation has been launched into claims from a Conservative MP that she was sacked as a minister because of her Muslim faith.
Nusrat Ghani was sacked as transport minister in a February 2020 reshuffle.
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”.
Chief whip Mark Spencer later said he was the whip in question, but has described her allegations as “completely false”.
He added: “I consider them to be defamatory. I have never used those words attributed to me.”
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
Now, Downing Street has confirmed that Boris Johnson has asked the Cabinet Office to carry out an inquiry into the allegations.
“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.
Ms Dodds also said that Conservative MP Michael Fabricant should have the party whip removed after saying Ms Ghani was not “obviously” a Muslim and it was “lame” to claim this was the reason she lost her ministerial role.
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.
“It comes as no surprise that someone who once compared Muslim women to letterboxes failed to take allegations of Islamophobia seriously.”
Writing in his Daily Telegraph column in 2018, Mr Johnson compared women who wear the burka to “bank robbers” and said they look “like letter boxes”. He later apologised “for any offence taken” by the remarks.