(Bloomberg) -- A former deputy chairman in Rishi Sunak’s ruling Conservatives has been suspended after growing pressure from within the party over his claim that London Mayor Sadiq Khan is controlled by “Islamists.”

Lee Anderson had the Conservative whip suspended, meaning that if not reinstated he won’t be allowed to vote in Parliament or stand as a Tory at the next general election, expected in the second half of this year. A spokesperson for the party’s chief whip Simon Hart said the decision had been made following Anderson’s “refusal to apologize” for remarks made on Friday about London’s Muslim mayor.

“I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan and they’ve got control of London,” Anderson said on Friday, in an appearance on GB News. “He’s actually given our capital city away to his mates.”

Khan is campaigning to retain his London mayoralty ahead of elections on May 2 against the backdrop of bitter political divisiveness in Britain over the turmoil in the Middle East. A debate on Gaza in Parliament on Wednesday descended into chaos and almost cost the Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle his job. Meanwhile, the main opposition Labour Party will face a by-election on Thursday without a candidate after Azhar Ali was disowned by the party when a recording of him making allegedly anti-Semitic comments emerged.  

As the the son of a miner and former longtime Labour supporter, Anderson served a particular role in Sunak’s Conservatives, articulating populist opinions the wealthy premier could not authentically promote. As such, Anderson was allowed a relatively free rein and has often provoked controversy. 

He was dubbed “30p Lee” after inviting opposition MPs to visit a food bank in his constituency, where he said that meals could be cooked for about 30 pence per day. Anderson also supported the return of capital punishment and has used earthy language in his calls for migrants to return to their countries of origin. 

The Conservatives will be concerned the high-profile Lee, who has his own show on GB News, may defect to the Reform UK Party, which took votes from the Conservatives at recent by-elections. Anderson quit his post as one of the party’s deputy chairmen in January in order to vote for amendments aimed at toughening up Sunak’s flagship immigration legislation.

On Saturday Khan accused Sunak’s Conservatives of a “deafening silence,” in their refusal to condemn the remarks. He told broadcasters that Anderson’s claim was “Islamophobic, racist” and pours “fuel on the fire of anti-Muslim hatred.”

Early Saturday, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps distanced himself from the comments but stopped short of criticizing them outright, arguing Anderson has a right to speak his mind. Nevertheless by mid-afternoon, pressure on Sunak to act grew as other senior Conservatives condemned the claim. Business minister Nus Ghani branded it “foolish and dangerous,” while former chancellor Sajid Javid described the remark as “ridiculous.” 


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