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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder