London, Oct. 7: Jack Straw was left out in the cold by Tony Blair and cabinet colleagues last night after he stepped up the row over Muslim veils by saying that it would be better if women discarded them altogether.
The leader of the Commons faced fierce criticism from some Muslim groups after disclosing that he asked women to remove their veils at meetings in his constituency office in Blackburn.
But his intervention was applauded by several backbenchers from across the political spectrum, including Shahid Malik, one of Labour’s Muslim MPs.
Rather than backing down, Straw, who was overseas on a private engagement, went further. Asked whether veils should be discarded completely, he told Radio 4’s Today programme: “Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but, with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”
He argued that the drive to improve relations between communities was “made more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That is a fact of life. I understand the concerns but I hope there can be a mature debate about this.”
The Prime Minister offered only a highly-guarded response. While No 10 defended Straw’s right to speak out on the issue, a spokesman repeatedly ducked questions about whether Blair shared his views.
She said that Straw —whose Blackburn constituency has a sizeable Muslim population — was setting out his “personal opinions”. She added: “Because people are expressing their views and this is an issue of debate does not make it government policy.” Asked what Blair’s personal view was, she said: “People should also have the right not to express their views.”
There was an equally cool response from Ruth Kelly, the cabinet minister charged with working with Muslim leaders to improve community cohesion. A spokesman for her said it was important to discuss such issues: “Ruth’s view is that this is a matter for individual choice.”
However, Straw’s intervention was welcomed by MPs with close links to the Muslim community. In a letter to The Daily Telegraph today, Paul Goodman, the Conservative MP for Wycombe — and the Tory backbencher with the highest percentage of Muslim voters — backed him.
“To most non-Muslims and some Muslims, veiled faces are an icon of societies in which Muslims are legally and socially privileged above citizens of other religions,” he said.