Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered an inquiry after claims made by a Muslim MP who says she was sacked because of her Muslim faith.
Nusrat Ghani said a government whip told her “Muslimness was raised as an issue”.
The Conservative MP wants the matter to be taken seriously.
Conservative Chief Whip Mark Spencer said the claims were completely false.
He said Ms Ghani was referring to him and that he considered her allegations to be defamatory.
Mr Johnson declined to say if the chief whip could stay in his job while the investigation was conducted.
He said: “This is something I take extremely seriously. We must wait and see what the investigation produces.”
Ghani also claimed she was told her “Muslim woman minister” status had made “colleagues uncomfortable”. The MP had been urged to make a formal complaint.
“The Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Office “to conduct an inquiry into the allegations made by Nusrat Ghani MP”, a Downing Street spokesman said in a statement on Monday.
The prime minister has asked for “the facts about what happened,” the spokesman continued, saying that “as he said at the time, the Prime Minister takes these accusations very seriously”.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab described her allegations as “incredibly serious”, telling Sky News that the ruling Conservative Party had “absolutely zero tolerance for any discrimination and any Islamophobia”.
Ghani has responded to the prime minister’s tweet “As I told the prime minister yesterday, all I want is for this to be taken seriously and for him to investigate,”
The investigation must encompass “everything that was said in Downing Street” and by the party’s leadership, she added.
The prime minister’s spokesman could not provide details of the terms of reference for the investigation but said officials should be able to “investigate freely”.
Speaking on Sunday, Ms Ghani said when she had not used the Conservative Party’s internal process because it was “very clearly not appropriate for something that happened on government business”.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said it was “important” for the inquiry to go ahead, adding that Ms Ghani was a “valued colleague”.
He told BBC Breakfast he hoped she would present evidence to the Cabinet Office, adding that it had taken “a lot of bravery” to make the allegations.
Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – who has frequently spoken about Islamophobia in her party – said Ms Ghani should never have been asked to go through the party’s complaint process.
“This allegation relates to comments made in Downing Street, not Conservative headquarters; it relates to a job in government, not a job in the Conservative Party; the allegations were made by the chief whip, not by the chief executive or chairman of the party,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“This was not a party issue, this was a government issue.”
Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim woman to attend cabinet, said Ms Ghani’s experience had been “an open secret in Westminster” and that she had “struggled to be heard” for nearly two years.
The former party chair said that she believed there was a “pattern” with Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, where “Islamophobic racism is not viewed as seriously as other forms of racism” and “action is rarely taken until the media is involved”.
She called for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to intervene, arguing the government might have broken the law.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said the prime minister’s standards adviser Lord Geidt should investigate if the chief whip broke the ministerial code with his alleged comments.
Ms Ghani was appointed to a post at the Department for Transport in 2018, becoming the first female Muslim minister to speak in the Commons.
During a mini-reshuffle she lost her job in February 2020.
Speaking to the Sunday Times, Ms Ghani said that when she asked for an explanation, a government whip had told her that “Muslimness was raised as an issue” during discussions about the reshuffle, and her status as a “Muslim woman… was making colleagues uncomfortable”.
The Wealden MP said she had dropped the matter after being told that if she “persisted” in asking about it she “would be ostracised and her career and reputation would be destroyed”.
After her allegations were published, Mr Spencer identified himself as the person Ms Ghani’s claims were made about, saying he did not want other whips to be “drawn into this matter”.