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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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.