LONDON (REUTERS) - A British lawmaker has said she was fired from a ministerial job in Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government partly because her Muslim faith was making colleagues uncomfortable, the Sunday Times reported.
Ms Nusrat Ghani, 49, who lost her job as a junior transport minister in February 2020, told the paper she was told by a "whip" - an enforcer of parliamentary discipline - that her "Muslimness" had been raised as an issue in her sacking.
There was no immediate response to her comments from Mr Johnson's Downing Street office, but Mr Mark Spencer, the government's chief whip, said he was the person at the centre of Ms Ghani's allegations.
"These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory," he said on Twitter.
"I have never used those words attributed to me."
Mr Johnson met Ms Ghani to discuss the "extremely serious" claims in July 2020, a spokesman from the prime minister’s office said on Sunday.
"He then wrote to her expressing his serious concern and inviting her to begin a formal complaint process," the spokesman said. "She did not subsequently do so. The Conservative Party does not tolerate prejudice or discrimination of any kind."
Ms Ghani said in response that the Conservative Party complaint process was "very clearly not appropriate" because her dismissal related to her position in the government, rather than in the party.
"Now is not the time I would have chosen for this to come out and I have pursued every avenue and process I thought available to me, but many people have known what happened," she added in a statement.
Ms Ghani's remarks come after one of her Conservative colleagues said he would meet police to discuss accusations that government whips had attempted to "blackmail" lawmakers suspected of trying to force Mr Johnson from office over public anger about parties held at his Downing Street office during Covid-19 lockdowns.
The scandals have drained public support from both Mr Johnson personally and his party, presenting him with the most serious crisis of his premiership.
"I was told that at the reshuffle meeting in Downing Street that 'Muslimness' was raised as an issue, that my 'Muslim woman minister' status was making colleagues uncomfortable," the paper quoted Ms Ghani, Britain's first female Muslim minister, as saying.
"I will not pretend that this hasn't shaken my faith in the party and I have at times seriously considered whether to continue as an MP (Member of Parliament)."
In his response, Mr Spencer said Ms Ghani had declined to put the matter to a formal internal investigation when she first raised the issue last March.
The Conservative Party has previously faced accusations of Islamophobia, and a report in May last year criticised it over how it dealt with complaints of discrimination against Muslims.
The report also led Mr Johnson to issue a qualified apology for any offence caused by his past remarks about Islam, including a newspaper column in which he referred to women wearing burqas as "going around looking like letterboxes".
The main opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said the Conservatives must investigate Ms Ghani's account immediately.
"This is shocking to read," he said on Twitter.
Ms Ghani's comments about the whips' behaviour also echo allegations from another senior Conservative, Mr William Wragg, that some of his colleagues had faced intimidation and blackmail because of their desire to topple Mr Johnson.
"Nus is very brave to speak out. I was truly appalled to learn of her experience," Mr Wragg said on Twitter on Saturday. He has told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that he would meet the police early next week to discuss his allegations.
Mr Johnson has said he had neither seen nor heard any evidence to support Mr Wragg's claims. His office has said it would look at any such evidence "very carefully".
"As with any such allegations, should a criminal offence be reported to the Met, it would be considered," said a spokesman for London's Metropolitan Police.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab on Sunday said that Ms Ghani's claim should be properly investigated if she makes a formal complaint.
“We have absolutely zero tolerance for any discrimination, and any Islamophobia, in the Conservative Party,” Mr Raab told Sky News . “A claim like this, as serious as it is, should be properly reported, and then a proper investigation (should take place).”
Mr Johnson, who in 2019 won his party's biggest majority in more than 30 years, is fighting to shore up his authority after the "partygate" scandals, which followed criticism of the government's handling of a corruption row and other missteps.
Mr Johnson, who has repeatedly apologised for the parties and said he was unaware of many of them, has admitted he attended what he said he thought was a work event on May 20 last year, when social mixing was largely banned.
Invitations had asked staff to "bring their own booze" to the event.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is expected to deliver a report into the parties next week, with many Conservative lawmakers saying they would await her findings before deciding whether they would take action to topple Mr Johnson.
The Sunday Times also reported that Ms Gray was looking into whether any rule-breaking parties had been held in Mr Johnson's private apartment in Downing Street.