Into the Sewer

It’s long been observed that British politics is ‘circling the sewer’ but events of the past few days would suggest its already down the stank. As Michael Gove announced new definitions of ‘extremism’  it emerged that the Conservatives’ biggest donor – Frank Hester – had told colleagues that looking at Diane Abbott makes you “want to hate all black women” and said the MP “should be shot”.

Just an ordinary day in Britain in 2024.

The extraordinary bile directed at Diane Abbott has long been documented, but we’re in new waters now. The response has not been disgust or revulsion or shame but to defend him.

As the BBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Henry Zeffman put it today: “Frank Hester’s defence now has cabinet-level backing. Mel Stride tells broadcasters: “It’s clear that what he said was inappropriate. He has, as I understand it, apologised for those remarks. I think the critical point here is I don’t think what he was saying was a gender-based or a race-based comment, but it was clearly inappropriate. He has apologised and I think we need to move on from that.”

Move on.

Frank Hester has given £10m to the Tories in the past year, effectively bankrolling their general election campaign is, a party spokesperson confirmed its “biggest ever donor”. Hester is a Yorkshire who runs a healthcare technology firm, the Phoenix Partnership (TPP), which has been paid more than £400m by the NHS and other government bodies since 2016, primarily to look after 60m UK medical records. Separately he has profited from £135m of contracts with the Department of Health and Social Care in less than four years.

But Gove’s tightening the definition of ‘extremism’, right?

It’s worth noting he’s not denying he said any of these things. After the publication of the remarks, a statement from his company (TPP) said 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”. That’s him ‘being rude’.

The dark money sloshing about British politics is a disgrace, with unashamed corruption in open view.

Incredibly, the increasingly desperate Tories are resisting calls on them to return the money.

The Guardian newspaper quoted a 2019 meeting at TPP’s headquarters in which Hester spoke about an executive from another organisation, saying: “She’s shit. She’s the shittest person. Honestly I try not to be sexist but when I meet somebody like [the executive], I just …

“[The executive] and Diane Abbott need to be shot. She’s stupid … If we can get [the executive] being unprofessional we can get her sacked. It’s not as good as her dying. It would be much better if she died. She’s consuming resource. She’s eating food that other people could eat. You know?”

What’s beautifully stupid and truly mind-blowing is the context of this that the Conservatives (and others) have cultivated, that is inventing manufactured ‘extremism’ (in reality peaceful protest in opposition to war atrocities) and amplifying and exaggerating the threat to MPs (openly through the Speaker of the House) – then, when faced with a blatant actual case of racism and a threat to an MP – they pretend its not happening and tell us to ‘move on’.

It’s staggering staggering hypocrisy. As Dawn Butler, the MP for Brent Central said: “What Frank Hester said is clearly racist. Don’t pretend you care about MPs safety if you can’t call out racism. You want to give millions to someone who hates “all Black women”. Rishi Sunak must hand back his donations and rescind his Government contracts immediately!”

This feels like a line, a line after far too may lines have already been crossed over the past few years, after which you feel exhausted by the endlessly soiled nature of British politics.

Comments (18)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Mr Hester’s vile comment related solely to Ms Abbott’s gender and skin colour, yet the Tories try to deny it is misogynistic and racist.

    Mr Lee Anderson MP’s remarks about Muslims was about Muslims, but, according to the Tories was no Islamophobic.

    In both cases they accepted the remarks were wrong, but denied the obvious reason why they were wrong.

    Are they implying that the misogyny, racism and Islamophobia are due to our interpretation of what was said in explicit terms?

  2. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Listening to the news discussion about Tory hate speech feels like they’re playing with legal definitions. I once sat next to Dianne Abbott at a trades council meeting and my impression was of a very unassuming, comfortable and approachable person. She should be protected – and we should extend our solidarity to her

  3. Niemand says:

    How anyone could deny this is not both obviously racist and sexist (if not misogynist) must think we really are total fools. The better news is most are not that stupid.

  4. Daniel Raphael says:

    A major part of why UK politics is so “soiled” is there exists no established process for removing MPs or Parliamentary officials from office, apart from periodic elections. The reason for this lack is something that’s been commented on in various quarters over quite a period of time: the UK has no written Constitution. While not a panacea (witness the USA), there is much to be said for such a document and its force as the basis for political behavior. As it is, the most one sees are endless “inquiries” and reports that at most generate remarks in the press. That’s it–no one gets booted, no one goes to jail, no one gets reliably fined. As it is, politicians operate without constraints other than the risk of alienating members of their own party…who, let us note, are often as soiled as whoever might currently be in the spotlight. Constitution, anyone?

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Daniel Raphael, that is not quite true any more. Since 2015, there are three conditions under which MPs can face a recall petition from constituents to trigger a by-election, according to this official briefing.
      You are of course right about the problems due to a lack of a codified (written) UK Constitution, which absence lets MPs largely police themselves.

    2. Niemand says:

      But this guy is not an MP or parliamentary official. He is a party donor, a businessman. What is noticeable is how much he has benefitted from being a major donor. Tbf to her, Badenock has now called what he said ‘racist and appalling’.

      Written constitutions are a different matter and there are decent arguments for and against them. But I find the constant refrain that so many problems are down to the UK not having one unconvincing.

  5. Alice says:

    Getting all set up for the next election after all their Tory electorate need their hate gums to gnash

  6. John Learmonth says:

    Thankfully Mr Hester is a self made man from working class stock so no accusations of ‘graduate elites’ running the show. He’s also from Yorkshire and people down there are very blunt.
    When I lived in West Yorkshire (many moons ago and had a great time) me and the wife went to a sportsman’s dinner and sat on the same table as Geoffrey Boycott. After he had a few he leant over to my wife and said to her ‘I bet your a handful in bed luv’!
    Obviously he’s the nearest thing to God in that part of the world so I resisted the temptation to give him a smack in the mouth.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @John Learmonth, Oh aye?
      Just for safety, I checked the Yorkshire Historical Dictionary entry for kiss, and that’s a bit too blunt. Not sure what your comment has to do with the serious issues raised in the article, mind. A little light diversion?

      1. John Learmonth says:


        there’s nothing wrong with a bit of light diversion. We can’t all be serious all of the time. Can we?

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @John Learmonth, indeed, nothing like a bit of friendly banter, as many a Yorkshire cricketer would say:

  7. John says:

    Most reasonable people, could not interpret these comments as being anything but racist and misogynistic.
    The Tories will deflect and are hoping to hold onto the donation. Many of their MP’s and members will not be overly disturbed by the remarks as they don’t mind a bit of racism and misogyny especially when directed at someone like Dianne Abbott.
    The other issue that Sunak cannot duck is the fact that Hester said an MP should be shot. In light of Sunak’s speech to the nation a week past Friday raising the issue of threats to and safety of MP’s and democracy he cannot sweep this under the carpet.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @John, on your alternatives to “hold onto the donation”, should the Tories give their racist-misogynist donor £10million, or is there another option, perhaps donation to a basket of charities selected by Diane Abbott MP?

      1. John says:

        Sleeping dog – not my 10 million and not my political party.
        I suspect Tories will try and hold onto money if possible because as they are now odds on to lose next elections they are losing donors because donors don’t donate unless they think they can get access to decision making – which is a whole different issue for discussion!

        1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          And this turns the spotlight on to Labour and the increasing number of very large donations it is receiving, some of them from former Tory donors.

          Emily (“I hate the SNP”) Thornberry has refused to reveal the names of these donors when asked by Open Democracy.

  8. Paul Johnston says:

    How I resonate with everything you say Mike. We are not perfect by any means in Scotland but God help us if we sink as low as the “Parliament “at Westminster.

  9. Graeme Purves says:

    It would appear that all the political parties who will contest the forthcoming general election have now bought into the lie that business cannot prosper unless citizens are deprived of their rights, protections and agency. Our politics and economy are controlled by gangsters. There really is no easy way out of this.

  10. SleepingDog says:

    Depending on how you define ‘British politics’, perhaps corruption is a defining aspect of the British Empire as well as the UK.
    Gibraltar’s government accused of trying to interfere in corruption inquiry
    The idea that the British spread the highest standards of democracy and rule of law around the world is of course laughable, but if we want to end the British Empire (obviously a dangerously extremist sentiment) we need to go beyond derision to systems thinking and analysis, and look to the edges.

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