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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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