It took an unusually forthright intervention by Sajid Javid in a BBC Conservative leadership debate in June 2019 to force an inquiry into anti-Muslim prejudice within the party’s ranks.
The then home secretary turned to his four rivals and put them on the spot: “Shall we agree, guys? Shall we have an external investigation into Islamophobia?”
The last to agree was the frontrunner to succeed Theresa May as party leader and prime minister – Boris Johnson – who nodded and mouthed “yes”.
Nearly two years later, Prof Swaran Singh, a former equality and human rights commissioner, analysed 1,418 complaints relating to 727 separate incidents as recorded in the Tories’ complaints database between 2015 and 2020.
Two-thirds of complaints received by the Conservative party related to anti-Muslim discrimination and that there was “anti-Muslim sentiment” at local levels.
But critics believethe 44,000-word report from Singh was doomed to failure because of a deep mistrust in the process that was seen by many senior Muslim Tories as flawed from the start.
One Tory source said: “It has been noted that not a single Conservative Muslim MP has been quoted in the report which would have required confidence in Professor Singh and confidence in the inquiry process.”
Singh’s report has criticised Johnson for his now notorious “letterbox” comments about Muslim women wearing burqas made in a Telegraph column in 2018, and singled out one of the prime minister’s closest advisers, Zac Goldsmith, who has an influential role in Johnson’s environmental policies.
Lord Goldsmith’s failed campaign to become London mayor in 2016 was accused of using “dog-whistle” tactics by claiming Sadiq Khan could not be trusted because he might sympathise with terrorists. He also sent leaflets to Hindu voters saying the Labour candidate would tax their gold.
There were also deep concerns that the remit was limited to examining the complaints process – a move which ensured there was no finding of institutional racism against the party.
Mohammed Amin, who was chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum for five years until 2019 and gave evidence to the review, said Singh had done an “excellent job” but was tightly constrained by the terms of reference.
“The key issue which the terms of reference did not address is what is it about the Conservative party that leads so many anti-Muslim bigots to believe that the Conservative party is the place for them?”
For Amin, Goldsmith’s campaign was a pivotal moment in deterring Muslim voters from supporting the party, but also attracting new members who are prejudiced.
“What Goldsmith said about Sadiq’s campaign, then what appeared in Boris’s column, and also a move to the right to capture Ukip voters under Theresa May, are all factors which this report could not address,” said Amin, who left the party when Johnson was elected leader.
Johnson said he was “sorry for any offence taken” over his journalism and told Singh’s investigation: “Would I use some of the offending language from my past writings today? Now that I am prime minister, I would not.”
He argued his writings were “often parodic, satirical” and claimed the article in question “was an honest defence for a woman’s right to wear what she chooses”.
Goldsmith “accepts poor judgment in the way his campaign was conducted, but forcefully denies harbouring anti-Muslim sentiments or using such sentiments for political advantage”, the report concluded.
The report will force a rethink at CCHQ. It said the Conservatives should, within six weeks, publish a plan laying out how it intends to tackle the failings highlighted by the investigation.
It also recommended producing a code of conduct and said at least one member of every party association should receive training on the complaints process.
But what cannot be addressed so easily by party officials is the underlying concern many Conservative party members are hostile towards Islam, which they closely associate with Islamist terrorism.
A YouGov survey in September found nearly half of party members believe Islam is “a threat to the British way of life” while six in 10 thought “there are no-go areas in Britain where sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter”.