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.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.