Cameron’s treatment of Warsi shows his blind spot

The PM is in danger of confirming the suspicion that the Tories are a rich men's club.

One feature of politics that is routinely forgotten in Westminster is that most people, most of the time are not paying attention and don’t really know what the government is up to. (The opposition are even more invisible.) Thus there is a tendency to think that the whole nation is abuzz with chatter about, for example, revealing text messages sent by Jeremy Hunt and the question of whether or not he should be referred by the Prime Minister to an independent advisor over his alleged breach of the ministerial code. It isn't.

This fiction is sustained by periodic opinion polls that ask questions such as “should Jeremy Hunt be referred to the independent advisor over his alleged breach of the ministerial code?” which is like asking “do you think a politician who is accused of doing something wrong actually did something wrong?” The answer will generally be “yes”. That doesn’t tell you much about anything other than the low esteem in which all politicians are held.

There are, however, exceptions. Sometimes issues cut through to the wider, non-specialist public. Sometimes also the persistent bakground hum of a scandal permeates the national consciousness, more as a nasty whiff of sleaze than a focused sense of outrage. It is in the latter category that the phone-hacking saga and the Leveson inquiry probably sit. Few will familiarise themselves with the exact chronology of emails, regulatory decisions and quasi-judicial whatnot. Many will detect something unseemly in the relationship between ministers and the news organisation that, somewhere down the chain of command, hacked the voicemail of a murdered teenager.

There is, however, another category of political cut-through, which is the stories that resonate with particular segments of the population. It is into this bracket that, I suspect, falls the treatment of Sayeeda Warsi, the Tory co-chair accused of a range of improprieties connected to registration of business interests.

Baroness Warsi has been referred to the advisor on ministerial standards and is under pressure to stand down from her party role – which brings with it a cabinet seat – while the investigation is under way. The contrast with the treatment of Hunt, who has been spared such indignity, is conspicuous. The reason for the different treatment is fairly straightforward. If Hunt is deemed to have failed in his duty to be impartial in adjudicating News International’s bid for a 100 per cent stake in BSkyB, questions naturally arise about David Cameron’s judgement in appointing him to that function and defending him for so long. By contrast, Warsi can be sacrificed without much danger of stray bullets hitting Downing Street.

Besides, Hunt is popular among MPs and a useful, loyal minister. Warsi is the subject of a long, hostile campaign by Tory backbenchers who want a chairman who sits in the House of Commons and will be a more effective channel for backbench opinion to the PM. MPs want, in other words, a chairman who looks and sounds a bit more like them. And there’s the problem. Warsi is a Muslim woman from the north of England. There are not many on the Conservative benches. Naturally, the anti-Warsi camp is very sensitive to the charge that it is motivated by racism, sexism or any other prejudice. It is all just a question of political effectiveness, they insist. That is plainly a bit disingenuous. There are plenty of white Tory men who would love a seat in the cabinet and flatter themselves by thinking they have been passed over because of a positive discrimination policy in favour of ethnic and gender diversity.

The crucial point, however, is that the different treatment of Hunt and Warsi will be noticed much more among those voters for whom the promotion of an Asian-British woman to the cabinet is a big deal. It won’t cut through in much of the country, but it will be amplified in precisely those communities where lurks suspicion of the Tories as exclusive and insensitive to racism. This has been identified by Downing Street pollsters as a key strategic weakness for the party and an obstacle in Cameron’s ambitions to win a parliamentary majority.

Particular faith or immigrant communities are acutely aware of who from their number has “made it” in Britain. This is a perception that cuts across party lines and penetrates well beyond the usual level of apathy and lack of attention to the Westminster circus. In parallel with this awareness runs hyper-awareness of anything that resembles unchecked prejudice. Consider, for example, the trouble that Ken Livingstone got into when he appeared repeatedly insensitive to concerns raised about comments he made to and about London’s Jewish community. People who might not otherwise have closely followed the London mayoral race knew that there was a problem with Ken and anti-Semitism, even if they couldn’t precisely pin point what it was.

This is the danger that Cameron runs with Warsi. It is a blind spot for him since he no doubt has absolute confidence in his own credentials as a man of great fairness, wholly lacking in racism. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there are people who don’t share his confidence and for whom it is symbolically important that a member of their community – or even just someone with the same colour skin as them – has reached the highest echelons of power. It matters that they then glance across at events in Westminster, hear a bit about some scandal and, without taking in all the details, clock that the posh white guy gets let off the hook while the Asian lady gets hung out to dry. That is hardly going to reassure them that the Tories are no longer a rich men's club.

William Hague, David Cameron and Nick Clegg attend a Diamond Jubilee Reception at Guildhall in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Labour's unstoppable force meets its immovable object

Team Corbyn are confident. But so are their opponents.

If you come at the king, you best not miss. And boy, have they come at him: over 40 resignations from the opposition frontbench and a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership that both loyalists and rebels expect to pass easily.

What happens next? The ruling executive of Momentum, the organising force behind Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the party grassroots, met Corbyn in his office late last night. It would be overstating it to say that the mood was jubilant but Corbyn and his allies are confident of victory in the struggle for supremacy. “Game on,” texted one senior figure. “He won’t stand down,” another told me, “He feels he owes it to the membership to let them decide.”

Within Team Corbyn, they remain convinced that the shadow cabinet “are going to war without an army”, in the words of one insider. Others are already looking forward to the policy conference of Labour and Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, where there is a chance the union may adopt a policy of supporting mandatory reselection of Labour MPs.

Are they right? Having called and spoken to party members, it is certainly clear that Corbyn’s standing among the membership is not quite as high as it once was.

But members are unclear what they want next – several mentioned Keir Starmer, although my instinct that is largely because, as one member conceded, he is still very much a “blank slate” on which the hopes of the party’s electorate can be projected. What most want is someone who would retain much of the politics but with greater competence – the Vice News documentary seems to have done more damage than the referendum on the whole – and without the thirty years in politics for the right-wing press to pick over. The difficulty is that it is hard to see a politician in the parliamentary Labour party answering to that description or even close to it. While for the rebels, finding a winner is no longer the priority, surviving a snap election in October is, loyalists in the PLP and the grassroots are either unconvinced that the result will be heavy defeat, or unconvinced that any of the replacements would do better.

The difficulty for Corbyn’s critics is, rather like Labour under Ed Miliband, although they might be the repository for people’s irritation and uncertainty, there are few making a positive choice to vote for any of the available candidates. My instinct is, if Corbyn is on the ballot, the polls might show a tighter picture, he might have a tougher time on the campaign trail that he did last time, and he might have a closer fight as far as constituency nominations were concerned, but he would ultimately win, and win easily.

That’s before you get into Momentum’s ability to expand the electorate further.  Although appearing at last night’s rally was criticised by some journalists and cost Corbyn’s team at least one frontbencher, who, while keen to avoid prolonging the fighting, didn’t want to endorse the attacks on his colleagues in the parliamentary party, ultimately the petitions in support of Corbyn and the impromptu rally have given them more data to go out and recruit people to vote in the next leadership election, more than making up for any loss of support within the party-as-it-is.

But – and it’s a big “but” – I’m not convinced that Corbyn will make it to the ballot.

The party’s legal advice, from the party’s lawyers, GRM Law, is that Corbyn will have to secure 50 nominations to make the ballot, just as any challenger will. My feeling, with MPs of all parties convinced that there will be an election in October as soon as the new Conservative leader is in place, is that pressure from activists to nominate Corbyn will be less fruitful than it was in 2015. (That said, Labour MPs are skittish.) 

The Labour leadership themselves have obtained legal advice showing the reverse from Doughty Chambers. But whichever way the NEC rules, neither side will be able to take it to the courts. Most legal professionals estimate that Labour, like a trade union or a private members’ club, is exempt. “You accept the rules of the club when you join the club,” and that’s the end of it. My impression is that the judiciary would be reluctant to get involved.

The difficulty with predicting what happens next is it brings two of Labour’s iron laws into direct conflict: Labour never gets rid of its leader, and Tom Watson always wins. And I don’t think anyone is sure which of those laws is going to end up broken.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.