Rishi Sunak finally admits Tory donor's rant against Diane Abbott is 'racist' as it’s reported to police

Diane Abbott MP is the victim of a ‘reprehensible’ outburst by a Tory donor (PA Archive)

Rishi Sunak has finally condemned a rant by a Tory donor against Diane Abbott as “racist and wrong” after Number 10 failed do so for most of the day.

Frank Hester reportedly said that Ms Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and “should be shot”.

A spokesperson for the prime minister on Tuesday evening 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.”

Downing Street condemned the remarks earlier on Tuesday morning but did not describe them as racist.

The updated statement was released just hours after Kemi Badenoch branded the rant racist.

“Abbott and I disagree on a lot. But the idea of linking criticism of her, to being a black woman is appalling,” she said. “It’s never acceptable to conflate someone’s views with the colour of their skin.”

The Secretary of State for Business and Trade argued further that “there needs to be space for forgiveness where there is contrition”.

Police are understood to have been contacted in relation to the the Guardian report about comments allegedly made by Mr Hester about Ms Abbott.

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said: “On Monday, 11 March officers from the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team were contacted in relation to a report about an MP that appeared in the Guardian.

“We are assessing the matter and are liaising with West Yorkshire Police as the alleged incident is believed to have taken place in Leeds.

“Officers from the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team remain in contact with the MP.”

Tory MP Maria Caulfield told the BBC that she also considers the alleged comments to be racist.

The health minister said the comments were "not something we should be kind of excusing in any way".

Earlier, Ms Abbott told of the “frightening” impact on her of the Tory donor’s outburst.

The veteran MP, the first black woman elected to Parliament, said “to hear someone talking like this is worrying”.

The Conservatives were under growing pressure to sever ties with Mr Hester and repay the millions he has donated to the party.

Ministers were desperately seeking to move on from the row which comes just weeks after Lee Anderson’s “Islamists” outburst against Sadiq Khan, which the Tories also refused to criticise as racist.

Ms Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, explained how she had been left feeling less safe after the donor’s remarks emerged.

She said: “It is frightening. I live in Hackney and do not 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.”

She added: “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.

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

“I am currently not a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party but remain a member of the Labour Party itself so I am hoping for public support from Keir Starmer.”

The Labour leader demanded the Conservatives return Mr Hester’s millions, calling his alleged remarks “just abhorrent”.

Sir Keir told ITV’s Lorraine: “Diane has been a trailblazer, she has paved the way for others, she’s probably faced more abuse than any other politician over the years on a sustained basis.

“And I’m sorry, this apology this morning that is pretending that what was said wasn’t racist or anything to do with the fact she’s a woman, I don’t buy that I’m afraid, and I think that it’s time the Tory Party called it out and returned the money.”

Ms Abbott, first elected to the Commons in 1987, has sat as an independent since April after the Labour whip was withdrawn following comments she made in The Observer suggesting Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism “all their lives”.

She apologised, but is awaiting the outcome of an independent complaints process set up by Labour to investigate her remarks.

Mr Hester, chief executive of The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), has admitted making “rude” comments, which were first reported by The Guardian, and said he is “deeply sorry”. But he insisted they had “nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

A Conservative spokeswoman said: “Mr Hester has made clear that while he was rude, his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor the colour of her skin. He has since apologised.”

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said that while Mr Hester’s alleged remarks were “inappropriate”, they were not “gender-based or race-based”. The minister added: “He has apologised and I think we need to move on from that.”

But former Tory leader Lord Hague told Times Radio: “His comments do seem to be racist. The comments, connecting dislike of Diane Abbott, with racial characteristics, well that is racist.”

He welcomed Mr Hester’s “fulsome” apology and was sceptical about whether the Tories should repay his donations.

Tory peer Lord Barwell, who was No10 chief of staff to Theresa May, also criticised the party’s response to the storm.

He tweeted: “This is an absurd line. First, Hester didn’t offer any ‘criticism’ of Diane Abbott’s views; he described his reaction to seeing her on TV. And second what he said clearly had something to do with her gender and the colour of her skin because he referenced both of them.”

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and at least one former Tory minister are calling on the Tories to return the money Mr Hester has donated to the party, if the allegations against him are correct.

Former Conservative Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt messaged: “If true, and it appears to be, it is open and shut for the Conservative Party. Return the donations, end the relationship and ask decent donors to make up the difference.

“With MPs under threat, and past murders, this is unacceptable. Many Conservative members will be watching.”

Mr Hester donated £10 million to the Tories last year, according to Electoral Commission records.

Frank Hester accepts that he was rude about Diane Abbot in a private meeting several years ago but his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin

Statement via The Phoenix Partnership

He individually donated £5 million to Mr Sunak’s party in May and gave another £5 million via his healthcare software firm in November.

Also in November, TPP donated £15,900 for Mr Sunak to use a helicopter for a political visit, according to the PM’s Commons register of financial interests.

The Guardian reported that Mr Hester’s remarks about Ms Abbott were made in 2019, meaning that they likely occurred when she was shadow home secretary under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The newspaper reported that during a meeting at his Leeds company headquarters, Mr Hester, having previously criticised an executive at another organisation, went on to discuss Ms Abbott.

He reportedly said: “It’s like trying not to be racist but you see Diane Abbott on the TV, and you’re just like… 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 executive) and Diane Abbott need to be shot.”

In a statement released via his firm, Mr Hester said he had rung Ms Abbott on Monday to “apologise directly for the hurt he has caused her”.

The statement said: “Frank Hester 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 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.”

Energy security minister Graham Stuart heavily criticised Mr Hester’s comments against Ms Abbott but stopped short of describing them as racist.

He told Sky News: “They were clearly reprehensible, he has apologised profusely and rightly and did try to reach out to Diane Abbott.”

Baroness Chakrabarti, a friend of Ms Abbott, said Mr Sunak should look closer to home as she described Mr Hester’s reported comments as “terrifying hate speech”.

The Labour peer told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “She has put up with so much over so many decades as the first black woman MP in our country and I say to the Prime Minister, I say to the Prime Minister, our first non-white prime minister, please, please do something about this.”

The Prime Minister and Communities Secretary Michael Gove are readying a new definition of extremism, to combat an upsurge of antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

Baroness Chakrabarti stressed to the PM: “You stood last week on the steps of Downing Street and you said you wanted to tackle extremism. We’ve got Mr Gove who’s going to put out some new broad definition of extremism.

“There’s lots of divisive politics being played here and yet they won’t call out what’s happening in their own party at the highest echelons,” she said.

“This is not where I thought our wonderful country would be nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century. Mr Sunak needs to put his own house in order before he starts lecturing anybody else, whether protesters or anyone else, about extremism.”

The Lib Dems made the same call as Labour, with chief whip Wendy Chamberlain also urging Mr Sunak to rule out “any future peerage” for Mr Hester.