LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday ordered an investigation into a Conservative lawmaker’s claim that she was fired from a government job in part because of her Muslim faith — the latest allegation of wrongdoing that is shaking the Conservative government and Johnson’s grip on power.
Former Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani says when she was demoted in 2020, a government whip said her “Muslimness” was “making colleagues uncomfortable.” She told the Sunday Times that she was told “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 identified himself as the person who spoke to Ghani in 2020, but called her allegation “completely false.”
Johnson’s office said Monday that the prime minister had asked government officials “to establish the facts about what happened.” It said Johnson “takes these claims very seriously.”
Ghani’s claim has deepened the rifts roiling Johnson’s governing party, which is being wracked by allegations about lockdown-breaching parties in the prime minister’s office while Britain was under coronavirus restrictions.
In the latest claim, ITV News reported that Johnson attended a birthday party in his Downing Street office and later hosted friends in his apartment upstairs in June 2020. His office denied it, saying that "in line with the rules at the time, the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outside that evening,”
The “partygate” allegations have infuriated many in Britain, who were barred from meeting with friends and family for months in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of COVID-19. They are being investigated by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, whose report, expected this week, will be a pivotal moment for the prime minister.
Ghani was elected to Parliament in 2015 — the Conservatives’ first female Muslim lawmaker — and was made a junior minister in 2018. At the time her boss, then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, said it was proof that the Conservatives “were a party of opportunity.” But some have accused the party of failing to stamp out anti-Muslim prejudice under Johnson, who in 2018 compared women who wear face-covering veils to “letter boxes.”
Two senior Cabinet ministers, Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, expressed support for Ghani.
“It takes a lot of bravery for someone to stand up and say: ‘My religion was taken into consideration when I was being assessed for what I do as a job,’” Zahawi said. “That should never happen and there is no room for it.”
Ghani’s allegation comes after another Conservative legislator, William Wragg, accused party whips of intimidating and blackmailing members of Parliament to ensure they supported the government. Wragg says he met with police on Monday to discuss his claims.
In another blow to Johnson's beleaguered administration, an anti-fraud minister resigned Monday, accusing the government of failing to stop criminals abusing coronavirus business loans. Theodore Agnew called counter-fraud efforts “woeful” and said the government was paralyzed by a combination of “arrogance, indolence and ignorance.”
The British government handed out 47 billion pounds (more than $60 billion) in loans to help businesses stay afloat during the pandemic. It estimated last year that about 11% of the loans, amounting to 4.9 billion pounds ($6.6 billion), were the result of fraudulent applications.
Agnew insisted his resignation was “not an attack on the prime minister.” In a dramatic statement in the House of Lords, the junior minister said he hoped that “giving up my career might prompt others more important than me to get behind this and sort it out.”
So far, only a handful of Conservative lawmakers have called openly for Johnson to resign. If Gray’s report is highly critical, more may be emboldened to call for a no-confidence vote in Johnson that could result in his ouster.
Even if he makes it through the week, many Conservatives have decided Johnson’s days in office are numbered.
Salma Shah, a political consultant and former government aide, said Ghani's claim “has really shocked Westminster and has become a very serious issue, adding to the pressure that already exists for the prime minister on the backbenches.”
“The reality is that the prime minister is in an incredibly perilous position. … It is going to be incredibly hard to pull back from where he is now,” Shah said.
Jo Kearney contributed to this story.