Is Cameron's support for Warsi on the wane?

The Prime Minister utters the deadly words: "questions to answer".

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.

Chairman of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi could face a police investigation over her expenses. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.