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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When is the Budget 2017?

Chancellor Philip Hammond will present the last ever springtime Budget to Parliament on March 8th. He has a tricky hand to play.

Fans of the Chancellor’s red box photocall outside 11 Downing Street are in for a treat this year - the abolition of the Autumn Statement means Philip Hammond will present not one but two Budgets to the Commons.

The first – the last ever Spring budget – will be published on Wednesday 8 March 2017. A second – the first Autumn Budget – will come later in the year. This will be followed by a new Spring Statement, which will respond to forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility but will no longer introduce new tax and spend changes. 

But what is likely to happen this time around? The Institute for Fiscal Studies set out a grim outlook for the chancellor in its "Green Budget" earlier this month. This year’s deficit will be higher than in 47 of the 60 years before the crash of 2008, the national debt is at its highest level since 1966, and the chancellor is still committed to the diet of austerity prescribed by his predecessor, George Osborne. With day-to-day spending on public services set for a real-term fall of 4 per cent between now and 2020 and those same public services already in a parlous state, Hammond has a difficult hand to play. 

However, Theresa May’s government has proved adept at U-turning when it needs to – think the Brexit White Paper and Amber Rudd’s lists of foreign workers. Here's what to look out for:

Changes to business rates

MPs of all stripes have been pressuring the government to rethink its plans on business rates, which will see new rates based on updated property valuations introduced for the new financial year. 

Initially, the government maintained that three-quarters of businesses won’t see any changes to their rates at all. But the fact that rates for pubs, shops, GP surgeries hospitals could be set to more than double riled Tory backbenchers, several ministers, the CBI and right-wing papers including the Sun and Daily Mail

We will likely see a concession from the Treasury on controversial changes, which were slated to kick in from April. Communities and Local Government secretary Sajid Javid told the Commons that a solution would be in place by Budget Day. 

Reassurances for social care

Britain’s crisis-stricken social care system – and the vexed question of how we’re going to pay for our ageing population – also looms large. In the aftermath of the controversy around the government’s supposed “sweetheart deal” with Surrey County Council, local authorities and charities have been lobbying Number 10 for a new settlement – or at least some extra cash to ease the pain. 

Indeed, the Health Service Journal has revealed the Care Quality Commission is to be handed regulatory oversight for how councils manage their social care services, and a number MPs are increasingly convinced that the government could be set to unveil a modest increase in funding. Any such package would only be a sticking plaster.