Posted on March 13, 2024

Tory Donor’s Alleged Comments About Diane Abbott Were Racist, Says Downing Street

Chris Mason and Kate Whannel, BBC, March 13, 2024

Comments allegedly made about Diane Abbott by a Conservative donor were “racist and wrong”, Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson has said.

Frank Hester, who has donated £10m to the Tories, reportedly said the MP made him want to “hate all black women”.

Mr Hester apologised for making “rude” comments but said his words “had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

Downing Street initially declined to describe his comments as racist.

But later Mr Sunak’s spokesperson said: “The comments allegedly made by Frank Hester were racist and wrong.

“He has now rightly apologised for the offence caused and where remorse is shown it should be accepted.

“The prime minister is clear there is no place for racism in public life, and as the first British-Asian prime minister leading one of the most ethnically diverse Cabinets in our history, the UK is living proof of that fact.”

Mr Sunak is now facing calls to return the money Mr Hester has donated to the Conservative Party.

Former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman described it as “tainted money”.

“He should not be fighting an election on money which has come from this person,” the MP said speaking on BBC’s The World Tonight on Tuesday.

Lord Barwell, a former minister, told BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Wednesday that his party should not accept further donations from Mr Hester but “they may well have spent some of the money” that had already been given.

The ex-Downing Street chief of staff also criticised No 10 for the “hugely damaging” decision to send out ministers who were unable to call the comments racist before the government line changed.

The government’s position on Mr Hester’s alleged remarks zigzagged all through Tuesday.

Ministers first thing said the comments were “unacceptable” but wouldn’t describe them as “racist” or “sexist”.

And neither would Downing Street.

Then the Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch outflanked the prime minister and said they were.

Downing Street held its line. That is, until it didn’t – when at 18:30 on Tuesday evening they changed their mind, and said they were racist.

On Monday, the Guardian reported that in 2019 Mr Hester said: “It’s like trying not to be racist but you see Diane Abbott on the TV, and you’re just like I hate, you just want to hate all black women because she’s there, and I don’t hate all black women at all, but I think she should be shot.”

In further remarks reported by the newspaper from the same meeting, the Phoenix Partnership boss is claimed to have said that there was “no room for the Indians, then?” and suggested staff climb on a train roof.

In a social media post, published earlier, Mr Hester said he “abhors racism”, which he described as a “poison that has no place in public life”.

He added: “We should have the confidence to discuss our differences openly and even playfully without seeking to cause offence.”

The BBC has not heard a recording, or been able to independently verify the alleged remarks.

Ms Abbott, who is currently suspended from sitting as a Labour MP, said the comments were “frightening”.

She has reported Mr Hester to the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigations Team, a Met Police unit set up following the murder of MP Jo Cox in 2016.

It investigates alleged crimes against MPs in their capacity as elected representatives, and liaises with the Parliamentary Security Department.

Responding on social media, Ms Badenoch, who also serves as the equalities minister, said: “Hester’s 2019 comments, as reported, were racist.

“I welcome his apology. Abbott and I disagree on a lot. But the idea of linking criticism of her, to being a black woman is appalling.

“It’s never acceptable to conflate someone’s views with the colour of their skin.

“Some people make flippant comments without thinking of this context – this is why there needs to be space for forgiveness where there is contrition.”

Labour party chair Anneliese Dodds said: “After finally conceding that his comments are racist, what further proof does Rishi Sunak need that the Conservatives accepting Frank Hester’s cash is completely wrong?

“After ministers lined up to dodge the reality of the situation, it’s time to face up to the facts: the Conservatives must apologise unequivocally to Diane Abbott, pay back these donations and root out the extreme views and prejudice which appears to be tolerated within the party.”

Mr Hester is one of the Conservative’s biggest donors, having given them £5m last year and a further £5m through his company.

In November, he gifted Mr Sunak the use of a helicopter for a political visit, valued at £15,000, according to parliamentary records.

In a statement released on Monday, Mr Hester’s company said he “accepts that he was rude about Diane Abbott in a private meeting several years ago but his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

It added: “The Guardian is right when it quotes Frank saying he abhors racism, not least because he experienced it as the child of Irish immigrants in the 1970s.

“He rang Diane Abbott twice today to try to apologise directly for the hurt he has caused her, and is deeply sorry for his remarks.

“He wishes to make it clear that he regards racism as a poison which has no place in public life.”

Ms Abbott said as a “single woman” she was already “vulnerable” when walking or taking a bus in her Hackney constituency.

“For all of my career as an MP I have thought it important, not to live in a bubble, but to mix and mingle with ordinary people,” she added.

“The fact that two MPs have been murdered in recent years makes talk like this all the more alarming.”

The Metropolitan Police said it was assessing the matter after its Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team were contacted, and was liaising with West Yorkshire Police as the alleged incident was believed to have taken place in Leeds.

Ms Abbott had served as a Labour MP since 1987, but was suspended from sitting in the parliamentary party in 2023 after she said Irish, Jewish and Traveller people were not subject to racism “all their lives”.

She withdrew her remarks and apologised “for any anguish caused”.

Ms Harman said she wanted to see Ms Abbott’s suspension resolved and the MP back in the party.

She said that she did not want to second-guess Labour’s complaints procedure and supported Keir Starmer’s drive against antisemitism, adding that she “would be very sad” if Ms Abbott was to leave Parliament not as a Labour MP.

In a statement, Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain also called on the party to hand back the donations.

“Every day [Mr Sunak] doesn’t return this money is another damning blow to the Conservative Party’s credibility,” she said.