How bad is the situation for Baroness Warsi?

The Conservative co-chair faces an investigation over expenses. Will she be forced to stand down?

It must be a relief for Jeremy Hunt that he is no longer the only cabinet member under pressure. Attention is currently focused on Baroness Warsi, who is facing calls to stand down after being accused of charging expenses while staying somewhere rent-free. The Lords’ commissioner into standards, Paul Kernaghan, has been asked to hold an official investigation into her conduct.

It has been alleged that the Tory peer – the first Muslim woman to become a cabinet minister – received allowances of £165.50 a night while staying at a friend’s flat in London.

Warsi admits to staying at the flat in Acton, west London, about 12 times over a six week period in February and March 2008. The flat belonged to Naweed Khan, a Conservative Party worker who was later appointed as her special adviser. Warsi maintains that she gave Khan “appropriate financial payment equivalent to what I was paying at the time in hotel costs”. Khan has released a statement confirming that this was the arrangement.

The allegation comes from  Wafik Moustafa, who owns the house. Moustafa, who runs the Conservative Arab Network, told the Sunday Times: "Baroness Warsi paid no rent, nor did she pay any utilities bill or council tax."

How bad is this for Warsi? It is difficult to tell. The accusations are, in the words of Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, "very muddy and blurred". (Graham also suggested, however, that Warsi should not continue to sit in the cabinet until the investigation has been completed).

Yet it is certainly embarrassing, and will not strengthen her position in the party. Warsi is already under pressure over her performance as the Conservative Party’s co-chairman. She lacks authority among her Tory colleagues, and many believe she hasn’t been fighting for the party after poor local election results. While she is widely expected to survive a reshuffle later this year, this development will not help her standing with other Tory MPs. Questions about her competence have come to the fore. A Daily Mail article this morning implies that she was promoted because she “symbolised the public face of a Conservative Party modernised and reformed by David Cameron.” The headline screams: “A Muslim, northern, working-class mum hand-picked for Cameron's A-list... But is Sayeeda Warsi up to the job?” It is a classically insidious line, but one that could be potentially damaging.

The Tory party has so far downplayed the importance of the allegations. It remains to be seen whether more evidence emerges and  the pressure grows sufficiently that Warsi steps down. Certainly, her authority within her own party will not be helped.
 

Warsi enters Downing Street for her first cabinet meeting. May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.