May 22, 2024

LONDON (AP) — The former deputy chairman of Britain’s Conservative Party, who drew condemnation last month for saying the mayor of London is controlled by Islamists, has defected to the smaller right-wing Reform U.K. Party.

Lee Anderson was suspended as a Conservative lawmaker in Parliament after he claimed that Islamists had “got control” of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is a Muslim, amid heightened tensions in the U.K. over the Israel-Hamas war.

Speaking at a news conference Monday, Anderson accused the governing Conservatives of stifling free speech. He said he had been disciplined for speaking his mind and for “speaking up on behalf of millions of people up and down the country who agree with me.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak condemned Anderson’s comments on Khan, and denied that his party had an Islamophobia problem.

In defecting Anderson becomes the first lawmaker for Reform U.K., which was founded by right-wing populist politician Nigel Farage. The party, formerly known as the Brexit Party, is seeking to attract dissatisfied Conservative voters mainly over the issue of immigration.

Reform finished in third place in two recent special local elections, and is seen by some Conservatives as a challenger with growing support, polling at around 10% of support from voters.

Critics say Anderson’s defection highlighted the bitter divisions within the Conservative Party, which is polling far behind the opposition Labour Party and faces a tough battle to win voters at the general election, expected some time this year.

“The truth is that the prime minister is too weak to lead a party too extreme to be led,” Labour lawmaker Pat McFadden said.

Earlier this month Sunak made a speech warning against what he called a “shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality” in the U.K. since Hamas launched its Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The prime minister said both British Jews and Muslims were subject to increased extremist threats as the Gaza conflict fueled divisions at home.

But critics, including Khan, alleged that some Conservatives were deliberately politicizing extremism in an election year.

Three former Conservative home secretaries were among those who signed a statement Monday urging the Tories and Labour to work together toward a consensus on how to respond to the far right and Islamist groups.

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