A senior Tory MP has been asked to step back from his public activities with St John Ambulance after he allegedly confused two senior Asian ministers at a reception in Parliament.
James Gray, the member for North Wiltshire, is said to have mixed up Nadhim Zahawi with Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, when introducing the former at the event, before reportedly stating: They all look the same to me.
Mr Zahawi, who was at the time the UK’s vaccine minister, is said to have confronted the MP about the remark afterwards. Mr Gray has denied making the remark or that he was spoken to by Mr Zahawi afterwards.
The incident is said to have occurred on September 8 in front of 50 guests, including the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, with Mr Gray hosting the reception to thank St John Ambulance volunteers and frontline staff for what he described as their extraordinary efforts during the pandemic.
According to the Mail Online, a source familiar with the controversy said: Gray introduced Mr Zahawi to the stage as the Health Minister at the reception and made the remarks when corrected. He told the people in the room: They all look the same to me. He acknowledged to the audience that his comments weren’t appropriate but in a low-key, jokey way.
A lot of people at the event who were all working hard to roll the vaccine out have been talking about what had happened. On Monday night, a spokesman for St John Ambulance confirmed to The Telegraph that Mr Gray had been asked to step back temporarily from his public-facing charity activities for the time being to reflect on the incident.
However, he has not been stripped of any formal functions and continues to hold the honorary title of the Commander of the Order of St John, which he was awarded in 2020. Approached for comment by the Mail Online last night, Mr Gray denied being racist or making the remark, adding that both Mr Zahawi and Mr Javid were close friends.
However, he admitted that he had confused the pair, adding: I said: I am sorry to confuse the two of you. You two look very alike. I said ‘I am sorry if I got you two mixed up. The notion that this is some sort of racist remark is ridiculous. They are two very good friends of mine. A source close to Mr Zahawi also claimed that Mr Gray had not meant to cause offence and had apologised profusely.
The incident comes just weeks after Mr Gray joked about planting a bomb in the office of Anneliese Dodds, chairman of the Labour Party. The comments were made after a colleague messaged asking for the location of Ms Dodds’ office so they could deliver something to her. According to the Mail on Sunday, Mr Gray replied: A bomb, perhaps?
The city is the location where the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in 1984, during the Conservative Party’s annual conference, killing five people and injuring Lord Tebbit, then trade secretary, and his wife.
Confronted over the remarks at the time, Mr Gray told the newspaper: It was a foolish remark. I meant no offence and hope none was taken. In 2006 he was also reported to have had an affair while his then-wife had breast cancer. The comments are said to have caused widespread anger among female Tory MPs, and came just days before Labour’s annual conference in Brighton.