Sayeeda Warsi speaks at the Conservative conference in Birmingham in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Tories can't afford to punish Sayeeda Warsi

The Foreign Office minister represents all of the groups the party needs to win over: women, ethnic minorities, northerners and Muslims.

Downing Street is doing its best to shrug off Sayeeda Warsi's remarkable "Eton Mess" jibe last night, with the PM's official spokesman saying today: "Look, I think that was in the light-hearted section of the programme. I’m not sure whether he actually caught the programme, as it happens." But behind the scenes, there will have been fury. Warsi's intervention gave Labour an easy pre-Budget hit and supplied Ed Miliband with fresh ammunition for his response to George Osborne on Wednesday. 

After the Foreign Office minister held up a mock frontpage (featuring Cameron and fellow Old Etonians Jo Johnson, Oliver Letwin and Ed Llewyn) with the headline "Number 10 takes Eton Mess off the agenda" during her apperance on ITV's The Agenda, Labour's attack-dog-in-chief Jon Ashworth said: "This is open warfare in the Conservative Party. Sayeeda Warsi  is making it clear that David Cameron is out of touch with a blatant attack on his style of Government. Once again we are seeing the Tories fighting like ferrets in a sack rather than taking action to tackle the cost-of-living crisis facing hardworking people."

Despite No. 10's protestations, it is also clear that Warsi's intervention went far beyond a joke. She is understandably aggrieved by her demotion in September 2012 from chairman of the Conservatives, after months of briefing against her, and the continuing unrepresentative nature of the cabinet (there are nearly as many men called David - four - as there are women: five).

There are plenty of Tories who would like Warsi to be punished for her comments, but it's worth noting why to do so would be dangerous for Cameron. Warsi represents all of the groups that the Conservatives need to win over if they are to achieve an overall victory again: women, ethnic minorities (just 16 per cent of whom voted for the party in 2010), northerners (they hold just 44 of the 158 northern seats) and Muslims. For that reason, she can't be dismissed as easily as some Tories would like. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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