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18 July 2022

The story behind the Daily Mail’s attack on Penny Mordaunt

What really happened when the Tory leadership candidate met Zara Mohammed, head of the Muslim Council of Britain?

By Anoosh Chakelian

On 18 July, in the midst of the Tory leadership election, the Daily Mail ran a story on its front page about how Penny Mordaunt, one of the candidates, “flouted No 10 ban to meet boycotted group” last year.

The story is not a new one. In February 2021 Mordaunt tweeted positively about a meeting she had as paymaster-general with Zara Mohammed, who had just become secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the UK’s biggest umbrella organisation of Muslim groups: “Great to have met with @ZaraM01 today, to wish her every success and hear more about her plans. Look forward to working with her and her team.”

The Sun and others reported at the time that Mordaunt was “slapped down” by No 10 for this, quoting government sources briefing about a longstanding policy of “non-engagement” with the group. The Labour government did indeed cut ties with it in 2009, accusing its then deputy of condoning attacks on British troops. This suspension was understood to have been lifted the following year.

Although No 10 asked Mordaunt to delete her tweet, according to the Daily Mail, she did not.

I interviewed Mohammed last April a couple of months after the row, and asked her about the meeting with Mordaunt. She was very complimentary about the little-known minister, who has unexpectedly taken second place in the Tory leadership race.

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“It was a really positive meeting. We shared work on women, inequalities, championing more women in leadership, we shared some of our work at the MCB and she shared some of the things she’s been doing,” she told me.

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“It was a really positive and welcome step. And she seemed really open about working with the MCB as well. So I think it was just disappointing that unfortunately after the meeting, everybody else got really upset about it, everybody else was saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible – look at these two women meeting, they shouldn’t be meeting.’

“We’re trying to make some positive contribution and support a wider policy change on women and inequalities. So I was quite baffled personally as to why it got such heat when actually it was a step in the right direction.”

Mohammed acknowledged the government’s “policy” of non-engagement, describing it as “disappointing” and saying it didn’t “make any sense” to her. “I think I represent a new leadership… I think the government needs to grow up and get a move on.” She invited the government to work with her organisation, which she said was “a no-brainer for both of us”.

[See also: As Liz Truss surges, who is Labour’s dream opponent?]

The timing and nature of the boycott is contested by the government, press and MCB. The MCB’s website states that it was “reversed in early 2010”, and “it is only the Conservative Party with which there has been no formal engagement at ministerial level in recent years”. Indeed, there were meetings between Liberal Democrat ministers and the MCB during the coalition government.

I asked Mohammed last April whether the non-engagement policy – cited in criticisms of Mordaunt – was more to do with Boris Johnson’s premiership than previous administrations. “I don’t think so,” she said. “This is a longstanding issue, apparently, for more than ten years. We’ll go back and forward trying to figure out when, where and how, but the way I see it is I represent the future generation… I think it’s pre-Boris Johnson anyway but it seems to be their policy, which they haven’t given any real justification for.”

While it appears there was at least a Tory-led freeze on relations with the MCB when the meeting with Mordaunt took place, it is also clear the pro-Liz Truss press are resurrecting old stories to undermine her rivals.

[See also: Zara Mohammed interview: “Muslims are never the heroes on TV”]