David Cameron's declaration that Sayeeda Warsi has "questions to answer" is some indication of No 10's waning support for the Conservative co-chairman (recently profiled by Mehdi Hasan). Contrast that with the Prime Minister's fulsome backing of Jeremy Hunt, whom Cameron said had given "a good account" of himself to the Leveson inquiry.
There are now three strands to the allegations against Warsi: the first relating to reports that she claimed expenses while staying with the Tory official Naweed Khan rent-free, the second to claims that she did not declare a business interest to the House of Lords and the third to allegations that she misused her position as co-chairman to take foreign trips at taxpayers' expense (17 in the past two years).
Warsi's allies have provided a plausible response to the latter charge. The Independent reports that the trips, which included Pakistan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia, were explicitly authorised by Cameron and William Hague. One senior Conservative (note the absence of on-the-record support) tells the paper:
The idea that somehow Warsi has been travelling the world for fun at the taxpayer expense is simply rubbish. Part of her job when appointed was to be a government envoy to that part of the world. Everything is signed off by William and the PM, and to suggest otherwise is just nonsense.
In response to allegations by the Sunday Telegraph that she did not declare her directorship and majority shareholding in a spice company, Rupert’s Recipes, Warsi said: "My shareholdings and, before becoming a minister, directorships have at all material times been disclosed as required on the register of Lords' interests and to the Cabinet Office and on the register of ministerial interests."
But Warsi has failed to close down the initial line of inquiry over her expenses. Notwithstanding the dubious credibility of her accuser, Dr Wafik Moustafa (see Mehdi's column in this week's magazine), she remains the subject of a House of Lords investigation and Labour MP Karl Turner has now written to the City of London police requesting that they open an investigation into whether Warsi broke the law.
He wrote in his letter:
Baroness Warsi reportedly claimed parliamentary expenses of up to £165.50 per night for overnight accommodation while she was staying rent-free in a house belonging to Dr Wafik Moustafa in 2008, along with her political aide Naweed Khan.
Dr Moustafa has said that he never charged Mr Khan or Baroness Warsi rent, and that neither Mr Khan nor Baroness Warsi ever paid him for staying in his house. It appears that Baroness Warsi may have claimed for expenses which she did not in fact incur, and that a criminal offence may therefore have been committed. I am writing to ask that an inquiry be undertaken into whether Baroness Warsi or her aide Naweed Khan have broken the law.
The final problem for Warsi is the distinct lack of affection for her in the Conservative Party. Cameron has faced persistent calls to replace her with Michael Fallon, the Tories' deputy chairman and attack-dog-in-chief, or housing minister Grant Shapps, both viewed as superior media performers. ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie, for instance, has written:
Cameron also needs to reinvigorate his team. He should begin with getting a half decent Party Chairman. In tough times like these you'd normally see the Chairman all over the TV, defending the leader and lambasting Labour. Where's Sayeeda Warsi? She's been completely invisible. I asked CCHQ where she was. Is she ill? Is she out of the country? No, she's preparing for party conference which is still three months away. Pathetic. She needs to be replaced as soon as possible.
Under unprecedented pressure from his MPs over the Tories' diminished fortunes, Cameron now has an opportunity to do just that. It would be surprising if he weren't tempted to take it.