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14 January 2011

In defence of Baroness Warsi

The Tory right has it all wrong.

By Mehdi Hasan

I have a soft spot for Baroness Warsi. Before the Islamophobic and racist trolls arrive “below the line” to claim it’s because she shares my faith or ethnicity, let me clarify: it has nothing to do with that. It’s because she, like Ken Clarke, is neither a right-wing Tory headbanger nor is she a smug Notting Hill Cameroon. She’s unafraid to speak her mind and, by Tory standards, is normal(-ish).

This morning, Baroness Warsi appeared on the Today programme to defend the Tories’ non-campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth and used the radio interview to lay into right-wing Tory backbenchers who’ve been grumbling about the party’s overall approach to the by-election, where they came third.

Here’s how Warsi put it:

We had many, many members of parliament turning up; we had some who made much comment about the fact that we weren’t fighting a strong enough campaign but, interestingly, didn’t turn up to campaign.

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I would say to those who are critical: “Unless you were here, unless you were out delivering and unless you were knocking on doors, you really don’t have a right to complain about us not being vigorous enough.”

The response from the Tory right was instant and brutal; here’s ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie:

She should be defending her own campaign rather than lashing out at others.

And here’s James Forsyth, one of the best-connected Tory-supporting journalists, writing on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog:

What to do about Warsi is quite a problem for the Tory high command. She does visibly show how the party has changed but she’s also not very competent.

Hmm. “Not very competent”? As compared to who? The gaffe-prone Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who had to apologise for a series of ministerial mis-statements over the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) last summer and, in recent weeks, has had to execute U-turns over funding for school support and free books for kids? The reckless Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, who is on the verge of wrecking the NHS with his hasty, ill-considered and expensive reorganisation?

Forsyth describes the baroness’s intervention on the radio this morning as “Warsi’s ‘nasty party’ moment”. But, hold on, Theresa May, who coined that notorious phrase back in 2002, had a point: countless centrist voters across the land did indeed consider the Conservatives to be nasty, uncaring, reactionary, right-wing, etc. In fact, the problem I have with the criticisms of Warsi emanating from the Spectator, ConservativeHome et al is that they fail to recognise the rather obvious point that the failure of Cameron’s Conservatives to win a majority last year wasn’t because they went too far in terms of “detoxification”, “modernisation” and “rebranding” — it was because they didn’t go far enough! Or does Tim Montgomerie think a more right-wing, low-tax, anti-European, anti-immigration platform would have secured Cameron his majority in 2010? Really?? Just ask William Hague and Michael Howard how that barmy approach worked out for them in 2001 and 2005 . . .

Whether Warsi is gaffe-prone is a debate for another day; attacking her for attacking the right or running a lacklustre campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth is just silly. The Tories had no chance of winning the seat and, had the Lib Dems somehow won it from Labour, that would have actually helped the Tories by helping to stabilise the Tory-led coalition. And, lest we forget, it was the Tory right-winger Andrew Mitchell, and not Sayeeda Warsi, who, according to Gary Gibbon, “told cabinet colleagues on 21 December that they (collectively, all, both parties) should do everything they can to help the Lib Dems in Oldham East”. Gibbon adds: “I hear that no one in that cabinet meeting (including the PM) dissented from this pretty blatant piece of informal pact-making.”

No one? Not the right-wing standard-bearers Liam Fox or Iain Duncan Smith? So why shoot the messenger (in this case, Sayeeda Warsi)?

On a side note, you can read my interview with the Tory chair, from October 2010, here.