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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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