(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak is struggling to contain a row over Islamophobia in his Conservative Party after its former deputy chairman was suspended for claiming Labour’s Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is controlled by “Islamists.”

Conservative MP Lee Anderson had the whip suspended over the weekend because he declined to apologize for his comments. That means that unless he is reinstated — and Conservative ministers have not ruled that out — he won’t be allowed to vote in Parliament as a Tory or represent the party at the next general election. When asked about the suspension, Sunak said Anderson’s comments were wrong and he wanted to “take the heat out of the situation.”

“Words matter, especially in the current environment,” Sunak said on BBC local radio early Monday when asked about Anderson. “Racism or prejudice of any kind is completely unacceptable and we must stamp it out.” He repeatedly denied that his party has a problem with Islamophobia.

Losing Anderson from the parliamentary Conservative Party is a blow to Sunak, given he was appointed as deputy chairman to appeal to some voters in former Labour-voting heartlands known as the “Red Wall” that swung Tory in 2019. He resigned as deputy chairman weeks ago on the grounds that Sunak’s anti-immigration legislation wasn’t tough enough, but was still a prominent voice on the right of the Tory party.

The son of a miner and former longtime Labour supporter, Anderson served a particular role in Sunak’s Conservatives, articulating populist opinions the wealthy premier could not authentically promote. As such, Anderson was allowed a relatively free rein and had often provoked controversy. 

But his latest remarks, to the GB News channel on which he’s also a salaried presenter, have re-ignited divisions in Sunak’s party. He said Friday Islamists have “got control of Khan and they’ve got control of London,” and said the mayor had “given our capital city away to his mates.”

While Sunak and his spokesman described Anderson’s remarks as “wrong,” they stopped short of labeling them racist or Islamophobic — a reticence that the opposition Labour Party condemned. Labour leader Keir Starmer told reporters on Monday that the prime minister “lacks the backbone” to call out Islamophobia because of divisions in his party.

Anderson’s intervention comes at a sensitive time in British politics, as the Israel-Hamas war exacerbates community tensions that have spilled into Parliament. 

A debate on Gaza in Parliament on Wednesday descended into chaos and almost cost the Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle his job. Meanwhile, the main opposition Labour Party will face a by-election on Thursday without a candidate after Azhar Ali was disowned by the party when a recording of him making allegedly anti-Semitic comments emerged. 

Meanwhile Khan is campaigning to retain his London mayoralty in an election on May 2, with Tory Susan Hall his main challenger. 

A key problem for Sunak is that Anderson has strong support on the right of the Conservative Party, and some MPs are angry that he has been suspended. The argument plays into a power struggle that is playing out as senior Tories jostle for position in a leadership battle they expect to happen after the general election, with the Labour Party leading by about 20 points in the polls.

The prime minister’s response on Monday was carefully worded to avoid further angering that flank. But there was little sign that the row was dying down. 

Former Conservative cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi hit back at a statement from Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, accusing the government of having “dragged its heels on any way to tackle this form of racism” and said there’d been “culture wars, othering and blatant anti-Muslim racism” in the party.

A potential danger for Sunak is that Anderson may now defect to the Reform UK party, which poses a threat to the Tories on the right of politics and gained ground at recent by-elections. Reform UK leader Richard Tice told Times Radio on Sunday the pair had not been in touch.

--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson.

(Updates with Starmer comment in seventh paragraph.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.