Sayeeda Warsi visits Aceh, Indonesia, to see the reconstruction after the tsunami. much about today’s Tory party
David Cameron’s decision to refer Lady Warsi for investigation over claims about foreign trips with a business associate marks a major victory for the long, internal campaign against the baroness waged by her many critics on the right of the Conservative party. Those critics, who include some of the cabinet’s most prominent “stars”, will undoubtedly be hoping the inquiry leads to the party’s co-chairman being sacked. But the widespread disdain for Warsi, boldly appointed to the job by Cameron in 2007, tells you much about the state of the Tory party today.
The perception of double standards behind Warsi’s referral and the failure to investigate or remove Jeremy Hunt as culture secretary for his over-intimate dealings with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is so glaringly obvious that it must have been foreseen by the prime minister. That he pressed ahead anyway is telling. For while it’s technically conceivable that Cameron simply felt Warsi’s misdemeanours are worse than Hunt’s, it is surely more likely that, not for the first time, he was deferring to pressure from his party and the rightwing press.
The support for Hunt among leading Tories is as revealing as Warsi’slack of it. Just as special advisers promote their ministers’ agenda, ministers promote that of their prime minister: so there is logic in Cameron’s anxiety about dropping as minister who in being pro-Murdoch, was merely doing No 10’s bidding.
In contrast, Warsi goes against the grain of the Conservative party. There are two connected factors behind this: one about race and the other about ideology. Cameron’s support for homosexual marriage has awarded him the epithet “moderniser”, masking a failure by his party fully to modernise on ethnic minorities at a grassroots level, even in areas that are highly ethnically diverse. In Birmingham, for example, Tory losses at the May local elections could at least in part be explained by the all-white set of councillors in place for those elections. In the Commons, there are only 11 Tory MPs from ethnic minorities, up from two before the 2010 general election. The continued failure of the Tories to connect with non-white voters is a problem that has been discussed by the party’s top strategists.
Then there is policy. The influential “ConservativeHome” website ran a statement by the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom saying Warsi’s presence at the top of the party ranks sends “the wrong signal at a time when Britain is fighting a global war against Islamic terrorism and extremism. Mrs Warsi has been a fierce critic of British anti-terror policy, stating that anti-terrorism legislation had turned Britain into a ‘police state’.” Michael Gove, a neoconservative admirer of Murdoch and the invasion of Iraq supported by all 175 Murdoch editors, is one of Warsi’s leading internal critics. Sources close to Warsi say that Gove fought long and hard against her plan for a cross-government working group to tackle anti-Muslim racism. Indeed, Warsi spends considerable amounts of time fending off attacks from her party colleagues. The battle between the neocon wing of cabinet – including the key Hunt-backers Gove and George Osborne – on the one hand, and Warsi on the other, explains Cameron’s somewhat conflicting position on Islam and Islamic extremism. Gove has influenced the more controversial interventions by Cameron, including a speech last February in which he attacked multiculturalism. Warsi pulls in the other direction. But Warsi’s speech in which she said Islamophobia had “passed the dinner table test” last year was disowned by Downing Street, which briefed that Cameron had not signed it off.
Of course, much of the criticism of Warsi has been coded, with her competence being questioned. Yet she has arguably proved a more effective co-chairman than the man who shares her job, and who some Tories want to take over the full role: Andrew Feldman. It was Feldman who appointed Peter Cruddas, whose attempts to raise cash for access to the prime minister led to huge embarrassment for the party earlier this year. And Feldman has form: in 2007 I reported in the Independent that the then fundraiser was gaining access to the Palace of Westminster by using a pass allotted to a Conservative peer, Lord Harris of Peckham, who had no parliamentary office and asked for no research. Feldman told me at the time that he had “not been asked to conduct any research and had not done so”. This led to a senior member of the Lords privileges committee, Lord McNally, to say such behaviour “pollutes our politics“. But Feldman was later promoted. An old university friend and tennis partner of Cameron’s, he was in favour, one of the gang. The double standards charge could be laid here, too, not to mention on Cameron’s relaxed approach to cabinet ministers whose expenses sins were clearly worse than Warsi’s.
But the real hypocrisy is over Hunt. As the on-message culture secretary remains in post, off-message Warsi appears to be thrown to the wolves. That so many Tories are content with that contrast tells you a lot of what you need to know about the ideological nature of today’s Conservative party.