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Everything we know about 'shocking' Tory donor race row

Frank Hester has apologised for being ‘rude’ about former Labour MP Diane Abbott.

London, UK  13 March 2024 Prime Minister of Britain, Rishi Sunak, leaves Downing Street to go to Parliament for Prime Ministers Questions.
Rishi Sunak has been hit by a race row over comments made by a Tory donor. (PA)

Diane Abbott has accused both the Conservatives and Labour of failing to tackle racism as Rishi Sunak remains under pressure to hand back £10m to a major donor.

Frank Hester is alleged to have said Abbott, Britain’s longest-serving Black MP, made him “want to hate all Black women” and that she “should be shot”. Sunak’s spokesperson said on Tuesday that the comments were “racist” and “wrong” – but Downing Street would not brand Hester himself a racist.

On Wednesday evening, Abbott said the “reluctance to call out racism and sexism” was “shocking, but hardly surprising”, and warned the Conservatives would “play the race card… ruthlessly” at the next election.

But she also took aim at the "disappointing" Labour leadership, who she said were "equally reluctant at the outset to call out either racism or sexism".

Abbott currently sits as an independent MP after Labour withdrew the whip in April 2023 over a letter she wrote suggesting Jewish people are not subjected to the same racism as some other minorities. She remains a member of the party.

Sunak himself has been dragged into the row after it emerged he accepted a non-cash donation of around £15,000 from Hester for the use of his helicopter. Sunak told Labour MP Marsha de Cordova, who raised the issue during prime minister's questions (PMQs), that he would not reimburse Hester in light of his alleged comments.

Screen grab taken from the CHOGM 2022 YouTube channel of Frank Hester OBE speaking at a Commonwealth Business Forum event in Kigali, Rwanda. Issue date: Tuesday March 12, 2024.
Tory donor Frank Hester has apologised over alleged comments he made about Diane Abbott. (PA)

What we know

While Number 10 acknowledged that the comments were “racist” on Tuesday, that admissio came following an initial avoidance of branding them as such.

Ministers sent out on that day's morning media round had defended Hester, while Number 10 said the reported remarks about Abbott were “unacceptable”, but would not describe them as racist.

However, a new statement was put out by Downing Street on Tuesday night after business secretary Kemi Badenoch became the first member of cabinet to call out Hester’s alleged words as “racist” that afternoon. She wrote on X: “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.”

Sunak’s spokesman then put out a firmer statement following Badenoch’s intervention, saying: “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. "

Watch: Rishi Sunak insists public should accept Tory donor Frank Hester’s apology

London, UK. 8 January 2024. Diane Abbott former Shadow  Home secretary under Jeremy Corbyn and  Labour Member of Parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington  seen in Westminster. Credit: amer ghazzal/Alamy Live News
Diane Abbott has condemned the alleged comments made about her. (Alamy)

The Conservatives have insisted they are still prepared to take Hester’s money because he has “apologised” and condemned racism.

Abbott described Hester’s comments as “frightening”, writing on X: “I live in Hackney, I don’t drive, so I find myself, at weekends, popping on a bus or even walking places, more than most MPs. I am a single woman and that makes me vulnerable anyway. But to hear someone talking like this is worrying.”

Hester has apologised for the comments, revealing that he had rung Abbott to “apologise directly for the hurt he has caused her”. In a statement released by his firm, he said his criticism “had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”. The statement added: “He wishes to make it clear that he regards racism as a poison which has no place in public life.”

The issue was leapt on by Sir Keir Starmer during PMQs, during which the Labour leader challenged Sunak to pluck up “the courage to hand back” £10m to Hester. Starmer asked Sunak if he was “proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynistic language”.

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

The row continued following PMQs, after Abbott was not selected to ask a question during the debate about comments made about her, despite repeatedly standing up to catch the Speaker's eye. She later tweeted: "I don't know whose interests the Speaker thinks he is serving. But it is not the interests of the Commons or democracy."

What we don't know

While the comments have been widely reported, their accuracy – or whether Hester even spoke the words – is yet to be verified. Hester is is alleged to have said that Abbott made him “want to hate all Black women” and that she “should be shot”.

According to The Guardian, where the remarks were first reported, Hester, the chief executive of healthcare software firm The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), also asked if there was “no room for the Indians” and suggested staff climb on a train roof during a crowded meeting.

In the same meeting, he allegedly said: "I’m looking forward to going to Malaysia, so that I can make new jokes – I don’t know any jokes about Malaysian people but I’m sure we’ll find them. I’m sure we’ll find them. There have got to be some, haven’t there?”

While Hester has apologised, he did not admit being racist, instead saying he had been “rude” about Abbott. He also has not admitted to making the comments that have been reported – although he has also not denied making them. Downing Street also continues to caution that the comments are “unverified”.

London, UK  13 March 2024 Prime Minister of Britain, Rishi Sunak, leaves Downing Street to go to Parliament for Prime Ministers Questions.
Rishi Sunak has become personally embroiled in the row over David Hester’s comments. (PA)

We do not know whether the Tories will return the money that Hester has donated. So far, the party has resisted the demands, but it may be the case that pressure will eventually force their hand, in an attempt to quash the issue. The Tories have also not definitively ruled out taking more money from Hester in future.

And while Badenoch’s statement on Tuesday night very clearly stated that the comments were racist, resulting in Downing Street’s later statement, we do not know whether Badenoch’s statement was signed off by Number 10 – or whether it is evidence of Tory divisions.

Sunak’s personal ratings, and those if his party, remain low and it is yet to be seen if the race row will inflict more political damage on the prime minister. Tory MPs may – or may not – see it as an issue which pushes them to consider whether to replace Sunak before a general election.

However, the row does come off the back of former Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson’s claims that Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan was controlled by Islamists – which Number 10 refused to brand racist. Anderson was nevertheless suspended by the party and he has now joined Reform UK.