It must be a relief for Jeremy Hunt that he is no longer the only cabinet member under pressure. Attention is currently focused on Baroness Warsi, who is facing calls to stand down after being accused of charging expenses while staying somewhere rent-free. The Lords’ commissioner into standards, Paul Kernaghan, has been asked to hold an official investigation into her conduct.
It has been alleged that the Tory peer – the first Muslim woman to become a cabinet minister – received allowances of £165.50 a night while staying at a friend’s flat in London.
Warsi admits to staying at the flat in Acton, west London, about 12 times over a six week period in February and March 2008. The flat belonged to Naweed Khan, a Conservative Party worker who was later appointed as her special adviser. Warsi maintains that she gave Khan “appropriate financial payment equivalent to what I was paying at the time in hotel costs”. Khan has released a statement confirming that this was the arrangement.
The allegation comes from Wafik Moustafa, who owns the house. Moustafa, who runs the Conservative Arab Network, told the Sunday Times: “Baroness Warsi paid no rent, nor did she pay any utilities bill or council tax.”
How bad is this for Warsi? It is difficult to tell. The accusations are, in the words of Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, “very muddy and blurred”. (Graham also suggested, however, that Warsi should not continue to sit in the cabinet until the investigation has been completed).
Yet it is certainly embarrassing, and will not strengthen her position in the party. Warsi is already under pressure over her performance as the Conservative Party’s co-chairman. She lacks authority among her Tory colleagues, and many believe she hasn’t been fighting for the party after poor local election results. While she is widely expected to survive a reshuffle later this year, this development will not help her standing with other Tory MPs. Questions about her competence have come to the fore. A Daily Mail article this morning implies that she was promoted because she “symbolised the public face of a Conservative Party modernised and reformed by David Cameron.” The headline screams: “A Muslim, northern, working-class mum hand-picked for Cameron’s A-list… But is Sayeeda Warsi up to the job?” It is a classically insidious line, but one that could be potentially damaging.
The Tory party has so far downplayed the importance of the allegations. It remains to be seen whether more evidence emerges and the pressure grows sufficiently that Warsi steps down. Certainly, her authority within her own party will not be helped.