The Tories’ secret weapon

Sayeeda Warsi, chairman of the Conservative Party, talks to Mehdi Hasan about party tactics, Muslim

"Can you do this afternoon?" reads the text message from Sayeeda Warsi. "Come to CCHQ at 4pm pls." I have been chasing an interview with the chairman of the Conservative Party for several weeks and now, suddenly, Warsi has given me just a few hours to prepare.

I reach CCHQ (Conservative Campaign Headquarters) a few minutes before the 4pm deadline. Builders are applying the finishing touches to a new sign in the reception area, on the third floor of 30 Millbank, near Westminster. The chairman - Warsi insists on using this title, rather than the gender-neutral "chair" - meets me in a rather spartan boardroom. "You should have seen this place about four weeks ago, after the general election," she says. Warsi reveals that she has had to take a break from writing her party conference speech to see me. "I'm just so busy. I feel like I haven't slept in months."

She combines her role as chairman of the party with the wide-ranging government job of minister-without-portfolio. She is also the first Muslim woman to sit in cabinet. She arrived at her first cabinet meeting in May dressed in a pink-and-gold shalwar kameez.

It has been quite a rise for the former solicitor, who is not yet 40 and whose political career began less than eight years ago. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants and the second of five sisters, Warsi was born and brought up in Dewsbury, near the family of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the July 2007 London bombings, and stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative parliamentary candidate in the West Yorkshire town in 2005. She was married at the age of 19 to a cousin she met in Pakistan, but got divorced 17 years later. In 2009 she remarried and now has four stepchildren as well as a daughter, Aamna, 13, from her first marriage.

Confident, charming and articulate, Warsi speaks at speed and with a strong Yorkshire accent. But, she tells me, she has not allowed her power or position to go to her head. "Every time I walk through Westminster Hall, and it doesn't matter if I do it ten times a day or once every two weeks, it still takes my breath away and still makes me think, wow, what an amazing place - and to think that I work here."

Ensconced inside CCHQ, Warsi seems genuinely proud to be the chairman of the Conservative Party - a post held in the past by, among others, Rab Butler, Willie Whitelaw and Norman Tebbit. "I have got the best job in cabinet. I have got the best job by still being here with my family," she tells me, pointing to the Tory aides and CCHQ staffers around her. "I haven't really left the fold."

Were Conservative Party activists and members frustrated, I wonder, about the decision to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, rather than trying to govern alone? "I challenged our members and told them we didn't win the last general election . . . so that means we are compromising all the time."

Election strategy

Like many of her colleagues, Warsi, who sits between the Lib Dems Michael Moore and Danny Alexander in cabinet meetings, is full of praise and admiration for her coalition partners. I ask which Liberal Democrat minister has most impressed her. "David Laws," she replies. "I thought he was a phenomenal brain, so much clarity; he was a great cabinet colleague."

The Tory-Lib Dem love-in will be tested during next year's local elections and at the general election scheduled for 2015. In recent weeks, there has been much talk of a potential electoral pact between the two coalition partners - encouraged, in particular, by the Tory MP and David Cameron ally Nicholas Boles. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, used a question-and-answer session at his party's conference in Liverpool to dismiss the idea and has pledged to his members that the Liberal Democrats will contest every constituency at the next election.

Can Warsi assure me that the Tories, too, will stand candidates in every seat in the country? "As party chairman, right now, you are asking me this question and my answer is: yes." ("Right now" gives her sufficient wriggle room to amend this position, if necessary, in the coming years.) So what will her advice be to the Tory candidate who challenges Clegg in Sheffield Hallam? She laughs. "If I decided to give candidates advice on how to fight the 2015 election, I would be a pretty naive chairman.

I just think to myself: I am planning a party conference strategy, followed by a local election strategy, followed by a Boris Johnson [mayoral] election strategy."

We meet on the day that the outgoing deputy chairman and controversial donor Michael Ashcroft published his verdict on the party's failure to win an overall majority in May; he concluded that the Conservatives did not get their "message" and "brand" across to the voters. Members have urged the party's high command to carry out its own official post-mortem. I ask Warsi why she thinks David Cameron failed to "seal the deal" with the electorate, despite the propitious political and economic circumstances.

“First of all, we need to acknowledge how big the deal was that we needed to seal," she says. "It was a huge mountain that we needed to climb . . . and we won more seats at this election than we gained since the 1930s.

“There are still areas in which we did not do very well. Urban areas, where we did not do as well as we should have; ethnic-minority communities, where we did not do as well as we should have." Then she makes a remarkable claim. "At least three seats where we lost, where we didn't gain the seat, based on electoral fraud. Now, could we have planned for that in the campaign? Absolutely not."

This is the first time a senior minister has made such a blunt and specific allegation about the impact of electoral fraud on the general election result. Can she reveal the names of those seats? "I think it would be wrong to start identifying them," she says, but adds: "It is predominantly within the Asian community. I have to look back and say we didn't do well in those communities, but was there something over and above that we could have done? Well, actually not, if there is going to be voter fraud."

Did Labour benefit from the alleged "fraud"? "Absolutely," Warsi says, without hesitation. The peer says she has written to Clegg, who is overseeing the coalition's reforms to the electoral system, to highlight the issue of fraud and voter disenfranchisement.

Of future elections, it has been debated whether the Lib Dems will suffer heavy losses in May 2011, but Warsi warns that her own party could face a backlash. "I think we are going to have to temper expectations, purely because, politics aside, from a numbers perspective these elections are the ones that four years ago we did extremely well in," she says. "And so 2011 is the year we would expect to lose some seats. It is the first year of government and we will have to make some difficult decisions."

“Difficult decisions" is Tory code for cuts. In the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October, the Chancellor, George Osborne, will unveil the most severe reductions in public expenditure since the Second World War.

“I am convinced that the country understands the state of the economy and the state of Britain at the moment," Warsi says. "I call it the 'cab driver test'. I take cabs all the time. Anywhere I go, I ask the cab driver - we have a conversation . . ."

But, I interrupt, aren't many cab drivers right-wing? Do they represent the average voter? She pauses. "Well, beyond cab drivers, I have conversations with a lot of people and there is a general acknowledgement that, yes, we are going to have to make cuts."

Generation game

On 11 August, in the coalition's first party political press conference, Warsi joined the Energy Secretary, the Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne, to launch a vitriolic attack on the pre­vious government's record in office; she described Labour's handling of the economy as "criminal". And less than two hours after Ed Miliband's election as the new Labour leader on 25 September, a round-robin email from the Conservative chairman accused Miliband of having played a "central role in creating the financial mess we're all paying for".

This Tory peer doesn't pull any punches, but it would be wrong to caricature her as a tribalist, the Conservatives' answer to John Prescott.

Her friends and admirers extend across the political divide - among them Nazir Ahmed, the Labour peer with whom she travelled to Sudan in December 2007 to help secure the release of the imprisoned British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons. Warsi pays tribute to Ahmed and other Labour politicians from Asian backgrounds, who she says helped open the way for her own political progress and success.

“Each generation has to play a role. Yes, they are not of my political ilk, but had people like Khalid Mahmood not done what they did, had people like Lord Ahmed not done what they did, then people like me and Sadiq Khan, Rushanara Ali and Yasmin Qureshi could not have done what we did. And we will play our role and then we will have a new generation of BME [black and minority ethnic] politicians."

I remind the baroness that Asian voters, and in particular British Pakistani and Muslim voters, have tended to vote Labour. How did she end up becoming a Tory? "I thought, 'What do I actually stand for, what do I resonate with?' And, for me, it's with issues around individual liberty. Economically, I am a conservative: small state, bigger community, low taxation, supporting opportunity and enterprise - I suppose the values that I had been brought up with. And when I talk about values, I don't just mean family values, I mean much more than that in terms of aspiration,opportunity, wanting to do better and not being prepared to accept the lot you are born into. All of what I call the 'aspirational working-class ethic' is associated with the Conservative Party."

Warsi becomes animated as she critiques Labour's relationship with ethnic-minority voters. Growing up in Yorkshire, she thought "that Labour's approach towards ethnic-minority communities was so patronising. The party behaved as if the British Raj was still happening and I was quite appalled at the way BME communities would respond to that."

Signal failure

But how did a state-school-educated Asian woman from a working-class family in the north of England rise to the top of a Conservative Party historically dominated by white, middle-class, privately educated men from the south? Didn't she face discrimination from her fellow Tories? "As an Asian woman, I don't think I did," she says, before adding: "I think as an Asian, Muslim woman there were blocs, not within the Conservative Party, but within the wider Conservative thinking, that had question marks about who I was and what I represented." Is she referring to the piece published on the ConservativeHome website, shortly after she was appointed to the shadow cabinet in 2007, in which two officials from the Washington-based Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom described her promotion to the Tory front bench as "the wrong signal at a time when Britain is fighting a global war against Islamic terrorism and extremism"? She nods furiously. Did such comments bother her? "Well, I think if it upset them, then, no, it didn't," she says with a wry smile.

Earlier this year, Warsi was named one of the world's "500 Most Influential Muslims" by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, a prestigious Middle East think tank based in Amman. Last year, she was named the UK's most important Muslim woman in the Muslim Women Power List.

She is surprisingly frank and forthright about the rise of Islamophobia in Britain. Citing the conservative commentator and columnist Peter Oborne, who has written extensively about the demonisation of Muslim communities, she tells me that "when Peter says that anti-Islamic sentiment is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in Britain today, that's absolutely true".

She adds: "If you have a pop at the British Muslim community in the media, then first of all it will sell a few papers; second, it doesn't really matter; and third, it's fair game.

“If you go back historically - [and] I was looking at some Evening Standard headlines, where there were things written about the British Jewish community less than 100 years ago - they have kind of replaced one with the other." The chairman of the Conservative Party, and the only Muslim member of the cabinet, is comparing the Islamophobic press coverage in 2010 with anti-Semitic journalism at the start of the 20th century.

I wonder if the CCHQ press officer sitting silently to my left will intervene to interrupt her. He doesn't. Warsi continues: "Should it make us feel better to be able to say we have had bigoted periods in Britain in the past? No, it shouldn't, but it should give us comfort to say we will actually work this through."

Next victim

Despite her outspoken attack on the media, and on "anti-Islamic sentiment", Warsi also has strong words for her fellow British Muslims. "The worst thing that could happen to the British Muslim community is if it retreats into victimhood, because there is no coming back from that. I think the British Muslim community has to be broad-shouldered and have to say that, yes, there are challenges, but with challenges come huge opportunities."

She refers to her own life experiences. "I remember a time when I was involved in the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the local council, all sorts of racial justice issues on the ground, and was starting to be comfortable being British and Asian. It was only when I was no longer British and Asian, but British and Muslim, that my identity was questioned all over again and, with my identity, my loyalty was questioned, too. Out of that challenge came who I am today: to say I am not prepared to put up with that."

Keeping Coulson

It is difficult not to like the Conservative Party chairman. Few senior Tories are as down-to-earth or as outspoken as she is. A natural communicator, Warsi also has a sense of humour: on the day in November 2009 when a group of radical young Muslims in Luton pelted the peer with eggs, claiming she was not a "proper" Muslim, Warsi texted a friend: "It's fine. Eggs are a great natural hair conditioner!" (She later continued her visit around the town with a police escort and told the BBC that the men were "idiots who did not represent the majority of British Muslims".)

In a world of pre-prepared statements and robotic politicians, Warsi is not afraid to make reference to her personal life and describe the way in which it has affected her political judgements. For example, when I ask her whether the phone-hacking allegations against Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister's director of communications and former News of the World editor, have damaged the Tories' image or reputation, she issues a robust but personal defence of Coulson, so far unmatched by any other Conservative cabinet minister. "I have a huge amount of time for Andy. Maybe that is because you know, through some very difficult personal times, Andy was absolutely there for me [and] my judgement of Andy is going to be based on my experience of him. I know that when I went through quite a traumatic divorce, and the media fallout from it when my ex-
husband went to the papers, Andy was there for me. I am a deeply loyal person and I honestly believe that you judge people on how you find them. I can only judge Andy on what I have found from him, and I have always found him to be a really supportive person."

What does she hope her legacy as chairman of the party will be? "It would be about how many people I have managed to get involved, in terms of leadership positions," Warsi says, joking that she has no grand plans to secure "Middle East peace".

“A good test of leadership is how much leadership you create - and if I look already at the numbers of people that want to get involved, spend time here, get involved in politics, want you to support them in the initiatives that they are doing . . ." I interrupt again: is she referring here to increasing diversity inside the party? "Absolutely. When I say people in leadership positions, I mean people from all walks and backgrounds." I glance over my shoulder at the open-plan CCHQ office behind me. Dozens of young men and women are hunched over computers - yet Warsi and I seem to be the only non-white faces on the entire floor. Inside her own "modernised" Conservative Party, the chairman still has a lot of work to do.

She is, however, a driven and talented politician, passionate about the need for change and reform, and enthusiastic about the role that she can play. "There was a girl I met the other day and she was from Oldham, from a Pakistani background, and she said to me, 'You know, five years ago my father would have baulked at the idea I would even think about politics and now he wants me to stand at the local council elections because, he said: 'I want you to do what that Sayeeda Warsi has done.'"

Much has been said about the Prime Minister's newfound enthusiasm for his Lib Dem coalition partners but, over the lifetime of this particular parliament, it is his own party's chairman who could turn out to be the Conservatives' secret weapon.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) at the New Statesman.