I won’t return money from donor accused of racism – PMon March 14, 2024 at 5:21 am

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The PM says Frank Hester’s alleged comments about Diane Abbott were “racist” but his “remorse” should be accepted.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has resisted opposition calls to return money to a Conservative donor who reportedly said MP Diane Abbott “should be shot”.

The PM said Frank Hester’s alleged comments were “wrong” and “racist”.

But he repeatedly told MPs Mr Hester had apologised and his “remorse should be accepted”.

Mr Hester has donated more than £10m to the Tories and in November gifted Mr Sunak the use of a helicopter for a political visit, valued at £15,000.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour MP Marsha de Cordova asked Mr Sunak directly if he would return the helicopter donation.

He replied: “No. And I am pleased that the gentleman is supporting a party that represents one of the most diverse governments in this country’s history, led by this country’s first British Asian prime minister.”

Ms Abbott – who sits as an independent MP after being suspended by Labour – was in the Commons chamber but did not succeed in getting Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle to call her, so she could ask a question of her own.

A spokesperson for Sir Lindsay said he had to prioritise MPs listed on the order paper and “there was not enough time to call all members who wanted to ask a question”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – who has so far resisted calls to reinstate Ms Abbott as a Labour MP – said the PM should pluck up the “courage to hand back the £10m”.

Rishi Sunak

Image source, UK Parliament/Maria Unger

“Is the prime minister proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynistic language when he says the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) ‘makes you want to hate all black women?’,” Sir Keir asked.

Mr Sunak replied: “The alleged comments were wrong, they were racist, he has rightly apologised for them and that remorse should be accepted.

“There is no place for racism in Britain, and the government I lead is living proof of that.”

Sir Keir also suggested that Mr Sunak had attempted to “pose as some kind of unifier” with his speech on extremism outside Downing Street, but now found himself “tongue-tied, shrinking in sophistry, hoping he can deflect for long enough that it will all go away”.

Mr Sunak said he was “absolutely not going to take any lectures” from Sir Keir, who he said “chose to serve a leader who let antisemitism run rife in his Labour Party, those are his actions, those are his values and that’s how he should be judged”.

Sir Keir responded: “The problem is that he’s describing a Labour Party that no longer exists.”

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SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn also called on the PM to return the donations and accused him of “putting money before morals”.

He described Mr Sunak’s defence of Mr Hester as “complete rubbish” and branded the businessman a “racist” who was “downright bloody dangerous”.

“Isn’t the extremism that we should all be worried about [are] the views of those Tory donors that we’ve read about this week?” he asked the PM.

Mr Flynn and Sir Keir were seen speaking to Ms Abbott after the session ended. Ms Abbott is understood to have asked Sir Keir to readmit her to the Parliamentary Labour Party, when he asked her if there was anything he could do.

Ms Abbott has sat as an independent since April 2023 when she was suspended from the parliamentary party for a letter she sent to the Observer, in which she wrote that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people were not subject to racism “all their lives”. She withdrew her remarks and apologised “for any anguish caused”.

Labour’s Paulette Hamilton, Birmingham’s first black MP, told BBC News Midlands she feared the comments towards Ms Abbott had added to “the threat and anxiety levels of MPs in Parliament”.

She said female MPs – and black women in particular – were very close to their constituencies and walk around them a lot.

The row over returning Mr Hester’s money was sparked by an article in Monday’s Guardian.

The newspaper 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.”

The BBC has not heard a recording, or been able to independently verify the alleged remarks. Mr Hester has been asked whether the reported comments are accurate.

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”.

The Scottish Conservative Party said it had never accepted a donation from Mr Hester and “the UK Conservative Party should carefully review the donations it has received from Hester in response to his remarks”.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said she was writing to every Conservative MP to urge them not accept “tainted” money from Mr Hester.

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