Sayeeda Warsi has resigned from government over Gaza. Photo: Getty
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Conservative minister Baroness Warsi resigns over government policy on Gaza

The government minister Sayeeda Warsi has resigned from the government over Gaza.

David Cameron's reticence over condemning Israel's actions in Gaza has been brought into sharp focus this morning as Sayeeda Warsi, Foreign Office and Faith and Communities Minister and former chairman of the Conservative party, has announced her resignation from the government in light of its policy on Gaza.

Here's her tweet confirming her resignation:

­­A Tory life peer and lawyer, Warsi was Britain's first female Muslim cabinet minister, joining the cabinet in 2010 as minister without portfolio. 

When the Conservative party was in opposition, she held the positions of shadow community cohesion minister and shadow social action minister – both roles that hinted at the party's recognition of how useful it is both for the look and culture of a party trying to modernise of having someone focused on faith, and a high-profile Muslim women's rights champion, from an ethnic minority group herself, on the frontbenches. A daughter of Pakistani immigrants, who was brought up in Yorkshire, she has described herself as a “Northern, working-class roots, urban, working mum”. In 2009, the Mail described her as "the multicultural face of the new Tory Party". 

It has often seemed to Westminster onlookers and insiders that Warsi has been promoted and retained a place in government so steadfastly partially due to the fact that it would look bad for Cameron to demote such a figure, because of what she symbolised and her unique position in the Tory upper echelons.

As commentators are currently pointing out, Cameron’s relationship with Warsi was often fraught and he may have been tempted to oust her from his frontbench due to her less-than-subtle opposition of the PM on a number of issues, and her propensity to go off-message. She has made forthright comments about immigration and religion, a memorable remark being her comparison of banning the burka to outlawing the miniskirt. She also riled the leadership recently by advocating clearing the "Eton mess" out of No 10.

Warsi was mired in an expenses row in 2012, which was said to make the PM “uncomfortable”, but was eventually cleared of the charges. It was argued at the time by some that the row was not just about expenses, but also down to her perceived unsuitability to the role of party chairman. From sources in Westminster, I have heard a few of her Tory colleagues sometimes don’t take her entirely seriously. One source recalls fooling Warsi in a Foreign Office meeting prior to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit early this year that they were obliged to welcome their foreign guest with a rendition of the German national anthem.

But regardless of individuals’ opinions of Warsi’s position in the party, they will have to take this situation seriously today. No longer can Cameron accuse Ed Miliband and the Labour party’s criticism of his silence over Gaza as playing politics; someone on his own side has now done far more than that.

Update: 5 August 10:20:

Sayeeda Warsi has tweeted a picture of her resignation letter (click to zoom in):

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Now listen to Anoosh discussing Sayeeda Warsi's resignation with Helen Lewis and George Eaton on the NS podcast:

 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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