Current Affairs

Brexit whistleblower Shahmir Sanni: Theresa May is a hypocrite who weaponised my sexuality

Nick Duffy April 30, 2018
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A few years ago, someone like Shahmir Sanni would have seemed destined for the Conservative Party A-list.

The 24-year-old political activist is both charming and intensely intellectual, speaking in paragraphs and spinning a blend of social liberalism and fiscal centrism that naturally gravitates towards power.

His identity as a British-Pakistani helped open doors for him in conservative circles and the Brexit movement, embraced by leaders “keen to show they’re not just some angry white dudes”.

But in late March, Sanni found himself an outcast from the establishment.

He’s now preparing to sue the Prime Minister’s office. He’s been sacked from his job with the Conservative-aligned TaxPayer’s Alliance. He’s also paying a bitter personal price after being outed as gay to his entire family – and the world.

“I’ve fucking hated the past few weeks,” he tells PinkNews. “They’ve been the worst weeks of my entire fucking life. I’ve never felt so vulnerable and so helpless.”

Sanni’s misdeed was speaking out about irregularities around BeLeave, the campaign group he ran alongside former fashion student Darren Grimes, which received £625,000 of funding weeks before the EU referendum in June 2016.

Sanni alleges funding was channelled through BeLeave by the primary Vote Leave group to circumvent the referendum’s strict spending limits.

Downing Street responded with a statement from Stephen Parkinson – a former Vote Leave official and Prime Minister Theresa May’s political secretary – revealing that he had had a romantic relationship with Sanni, casting him as a spurned lover.

When the statement ended up in The New York Times, Sanni was forced to come out to his mother, his extended family in Pakistan, and to the world’s media.

He recalls: “The weight of coming out is debilitating for a lot of people. Some gay men kill themselves from the weight of being in the closet.

“For a lot of Muslim-Pakistani gay men, the fear is of having their family lynched and murdered, their sisters raped.

“The worst part is, Stephen knew all this, and the government knew all this. The Home Office on their website say homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan and this is what can happen.

“I understand people say, you live in Britain, but I have family and friends and a community in Pakistan, and now they all know. Every single person knows. Anyone who ever will Google me knows.”

“It was none of Downing Street’s business, but they knew they needed to intimidate me, and it worked,” Sanni adds.

“The spiral of depression I’ve gone into over the past couple weeks has been horrible.”

Shahmir Sanni comforted by fellow whistleblower Christopher Wylie during an event at the Frontline Club (TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Sanni’s outing was met with condemnation from the charity Stonewall, Labour’s Ben Bradshaw and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, but Conservative figures have largely remained silent.

Parts of LGBT community have also shunned Sanni – for supporting Brexit, or for being in the closet in the first place. He rebuts both.

“My family has been so supportive, but to not feel the rally of support from the LGBT community has been debilitating. I’ve found that a lot of people put politics before the community,” says Sanni.

“A lot of comments on articles by LGBT publications, it’s people saying, ‘He sort of deserved it. What did he expect?’

“A lot of people think that because we’re in Britain all these things are hunky dory, but there’s huge repercussions for my family in Pakistan. Who knows what someone might do.

“There is that worry that’s going to constantly be with me now. That’s a big weight, not just for me but for my entire family.”

Sanni is unsure whether he will be able to return to Pakistan to visit his relatives.

For what it’s worth, Sanni also denies that any of his work within the Brexit movement was aimed at stoking fears over race, distancing himself from Vote Leave campaigns raising fears of Turkish migration and “xenophobic” Leave.EU posters featuring images of “brown refugees.”

He says: “During the campaign I was focusing on getting Muslim people to vote leave, getting Afro-Caribbean people to vote leave, getting LGBTQ people to vote leave.

“I wasn’t happy with how Vote Leave had done a lot of their work, and I was most definitely not happy with Leave.EU.

“What they did was fucked up, and they were perpetuating xenophobic sentiment.

“But, I am Eurosceptic. I moved here from Pakistan when I was 15, so I’ve never had an initial connection to the European Union.

“For me, it was personal. A lot of my friends graduated here but had to go back to Pakistan and India – they were extremely talented people but they couldn’t get a job so they were all sent off.

“To see Europeans be given such an obvious privilege to stay in Britain, for me it was unjust.

“It was the imbalance. I believe Britain has an obligation to cater to the people of its previous colonies, that in a lot of cases it desecrated and ruined.

“My Euroscepticism doesn’t stem from hatred of migration, or from fear.”

Sanni had once attended rallies for Theresa May, but he was incensed to see the Prime Minister defend Parkinson, the aide that outed him.

Theresa May launches her Conservative party leadership campaign in Birmingham (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The PM has stuck by the line that the dispute is a “personal” matter between Sanni and Parkinson, even though the statement that outed him was distributed by Downing Street press officials through official channels.

Says Sanni: “If Theresa May had learned from her previous anti-LGBTQ sentiments and grown from that, as she claims she has, she would not in a million years have sided with Stephen.

“But three times she said, ‘This was a personal statement and Stephen Parkinson is great.’

“Imagine the message that sends to other potential gay whistleblowers, or gay men working in spaces where they are tormented, where they are oppressed and abused within this country.

“Don’t contact the media, because they’re going to attack your sexuality. They weaponised my sexuality and then justified it – it’s mind-blowing.”

Sanni is also critical of the Prime Minister’s recent intervention on LGBT rights in the Commonwealth, while turning a blind eye to injustices within her own office.

(Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

“She is a hypocrite,” says Sanni.

“To think we are above other Commonwealth countries with anti-LGBT laws? Well, Theresa May is complicit in weaponsing sexuality.

“They used it to silence me, and that is exactly what people do in countries like Pakistan and in the Middle East.”

He adds: “I was there the day she was elected as leader. I went because I wanted to go help for Theresa May’s leadership campaign.

“But there’s no justification for what they did.

“Now, I’m like, fuck everything! I’m just going to keep working with the authorities to make sure these people are implicated, and I’m also suing Downing Street.”

Sanni plans to bring a legal claim against the Prime Minister’s office directly, alleging that his privacy was violated by the disclosure of his sexuality to the media.

“My lawyers think there’s a good chance,” Sanni says of the lawsuit. “I needed to do it because no-one else was doing anything, and I needed some level of justice.

“By suing them, it’s a statement – my privacy was obstructed, and the stress, pain, sadness, helplessness, vulnerability I’ve felt because of that has been awful.”

A crowdfunding campaign launched to fund Sanni’s lawsuit has so far raised more than £20,000 online.

He adds: “It’s humbling to know that people are actually out there, because when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t feel the support.

“When you’re in it, you look at the negatives. You look at the comments from Trump trolls instead of GayAngel123, who’s saying, ‘You’re amazing, keep doing what you’re doing.’

“I know I’ve been critical of the LGBT community, but that’s because I’m part of it.

“I still have a gone way to go, because if Number 10 win, the message will be, ‘You’re not safe.’”

The activist also has a different journey ahead of him – to find a future now the doors of power have been firmly slammed in his face.

He is currently unemployed after losing his job at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which was founded by Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott.

“To be honest, I don’t want to work in politics,” says Sanni.

“I was within the walls of the right-wing establishment for two years. I was walking the halls of Downing Street several times.

“But the thing I’ve realised through this process is that Britain’s political system is entirely broken, and anyone who assumes it’s still good and wholesome is kidding themselves.

“People don’t realise how nasty, how dirty, how purely selfish people are within British politics.

“There are very few MPs on both sides who actually seem to care about democracy or the British people.

“So, I’m looking for work [elsewhere].”

A month after he initially spoke out, Sanni is slowly adapting to his new reality.

Asked if he would speak out again, knowing everything that happened to him, Sanni is quiet for a moment.

“Probably not,” he eventually adds.

“I was willing to risk my job, the friends I’ve built, my future within the Conservative Party and within politics… all for what?

“For democracy. For protecting democracy. And nothing seems to have changed.

“Right now, at this point in time, I wish I hadn’t come forward. I’ve literally been ripped apart by the institutions I moved to this country for.”

More: brexit, Gay, LGBT, Pakistan, Prime Minister, Shahmir Sanni, Theresa May, whistleblower

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