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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.

The four groups she represents.
Sayeeda Warsi speaks at the Conservative conference in Birmingham in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.