Boris Johnson insisted he was taking allegations from a Tory MP that her Muslim faith played a role in being sacked as a junior minister “extremely seriously”.
The Prime Minister has ordered a Cabinet Office investigation into Nusrat Ghani’s claim that she was told her ministerial exit was linked to her “Muslimness”.
Mr Johnson has asked the Cabinet Office to “establish the facts” regarding the claims of Islamophobia made by the Conservative MP.
She said when she raised the matter with Mr Johnson directly after losing her job in a February 2020 ministerial reshuffle, he told her he could not get involved.
Mr Johnson said: “We take these allegations extremely seriously, I took them very seriously when they were raised with me 18 months ago… very glad there’s an investigation taking place now.
“I can’t say more, really, about it.”
My response to No10 announcement pic.twitter.com/Y3NOqQAk5G— Nus Ghani MP (@Nus_Ghani) January 24, 2022
Ms Ghani claimed she was told by a Government whip that her faith made colleagues “uncomfortable” and that her career would be “destroyed” if she tried to complain.
Chief Whip Mark Spencer confirmed he had spoken to her but strongly denied making the alleged comments saying the claims were “completely false” and “defamatory”.
Asked whether Mr Spencer could stay in post while the investigation was conducted, Mr Johnson dodged the question, saying: “This is something I take personally extremely seriously, I took it very seriously 18 months ago, we must wait and see what the investigation produces.”
Ms Ghani, the MP for Wealden in East Sussex, has welcomed the inquiry announcement and called for the scope of the probe to include what was said between her and “the whip” in Downing Street.
A spokeswoman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “We will consider any findings from the Cabinet Office inquiry.
“If we are not satisfied with progress, we will not rule out the use of our legal powers.”
The racism debate comes as the Prime Minister faces a make-or-break week, with his future in No 10 hanging in the balance.
The Conservative Party leader is braced for the delivery of the Sue Gray report into Downing Street drinking parties during lockdown, which is expected to be published this week.
On Monday, Mr Johnson looked to skirt queries about whether any further allegations of rule-breaking were likely to emerge.
Asked if changes in Downing Street were “inevitable” after the publication of the senior civil servant’s review, he replied: “I perfectly understand you want to ask questions about that but you’ve got to wait for that to come.”
Dominic Cummings, formerly Mr Johnson’s most senior aide but now an ardent critic, said he would submit evidence to Ms Gray in writing rather than in person.
On his blog, Mr Cummings said he had expressed concern the “PM will invent nonsense and spin it to the media” if they spoke in person, and that the official “agreed” for there to be “only a written record”.
Many Tory MPs have said they will wait to see the findings before deciding whether to push for a vote of confidence which could see Mr Johnson forced out.
Former Brexit secretary David Davis, who last week called for Mr Johnson to step down over his handling of the partygate affair, said he is likely to wait “three or four days” following the publication of Ms Gray’s report before submitting a letter of no confidence in his leadership.
Mr Davis said it would do “huge damage” to the governing party if the Prime Minister remains in post.
The senior Tory told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s pretty likely I would want him to go, but I will wait for those few days.”
Under party rules, once 54 letters of no confidence have been submitted – accounting for 15% of Tory MPs – to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, a vote of confidence in the leader must be called.
While Mr Johnson may win such a vote, it would nevertheless be a further body blow to his already diminished authority.
Many of the so-called “red wall” MPs – who took traditional Labour seats in the 2019 – are said to fear they now look set to lose them again in the resulting backlash against the party, with Tory support plummeting in recent opinion polls.
The Gray report may also lead to renewed calls for the Metropolitan Police to open a criminal investigation if there is clear evidence that the Covid restrictions in place at the time were breached.
The Daily Telegraph reported Ms Gray has been taking detailed testimony from police guarding Downing Street helping her to build a detailed picture of the comings and goings during lockdown.
Among the events Ms Gray has been investigating is a “bring your own bottle” do in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 during the first lockdown.
Mr Johnson has admitted he was there but said he thought it was a “work event”.
The Cabinet Office official has also been looking at two staff leaving dos on April 16 last year on the eve of the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh, which have already seen No 10 apologise to Buckingham Palace.