Theresa May’s condemnation of racist attacks on Diane Abbott has been branded “sinister” by shadow equalities secretary Dawn Butler, who accused the Tories of using dog-whistle racist rhetoric during the last election.
The Prime Minister used her key speech at the Conservative Party Conference to call for an end to the abuse of politicians, telling the audience: “The first black woman ever to be elected to the House of Commons receives more racist and misogynist messages today than when she first stood over 30 years ago.
“You do not have to agree with a word Diane Abbott says to believe passionately in her right to say it, free from threats and abuse.”
But speaking to ITV’s Peston, Butler blamed the Conservatives for the spike in abuse the shadow home secretary faced during the 2017 election “because they had her name plastered all over billboards”.
“I actually found it a little bit sinister,” she said. “They had really ugly messaging framed round her and they criticised her a lot.”
Asked by host Robert Peston whether it was dog-whistle racism, the Labour front-bencher replied: “It was absolutely to encourage people to discredit Diane and to abuse her. If it was accompanied by an apology then I would have accepted that and said ‘OK’.
Calling for more than “just empty rhetoric words”, Butler continued: “Say it, believe it and do it.
“So if that’s what you really believe then let’s hope that the next general election – which I hope will be soon – that there will be none of the stuff that we saw in the last one.”
Butler’s accusations echoed similar charges from Abbott herself, who took to Twitter to share a screenshot from a Tory election campaign which read: “A vote for anyone other than the Conservatives risks Diane Abbott as home secretary”.
“Some nice words from Tory leaders like Theresa May and Sajid Javid,” she wrote. “Makes you wonder who was responsible for the Tory party’s relentless personal attacks in the general election campaign 2017.”
Home secretary Sajid Javid also used his conference speech to applaud his shadow counterpart as a “role model” and pioneer, telling crowds that it takes “guts and determination to become the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons”.