And so it continues. Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, has long been accused of inexperience and incompetence, of being gaffe-prone and “not up to” the job. Now she is accused of corruption, of the unforgivable political sin of fiddling her parliamentary expenses. “Top Tory in expenses scandal: Baroness Warsi claimed cash while staying with friend rent-free”, splashed the Sunday Times on 27 May. The bookies William Hill promptly slashed their odds on a Warsi departure from the cabinet to 3-1.
This may not come as a shock to regular readers, but I don’t share Warsi’s political philosophy or ideology; I take a dim view of the economic and social policies pushed by the cabinet of which she is a senior and, so far, loyal member. But I don’t like bullies. The Tory peer has long been a victim of malicious bullying. As I wrote in these pages just a few weeks ago, the attacks on her, from the left and from the right, “have been as vicious as they have been relentless”.
I’ll come to whether or not Warsi is guilty of fiddling her expenses. But first I can’t help noticing the glaring double standard. Why is the baroness being singled out for opprobrium and calls for her resignation? What about other Tory cabinet ministers?
In May 2009, at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the Daily Telegraph accused Andrew Lansley, Francis Maude, Michael Gove and George Osborne of “flipping” – that is, the shameless and cynical designation of their properties as “second homes” in order to maximise financial benefits from the allowances system, as well as potentially avoid capital gains tax. Gove volunteered to pay back £7,000 in expenses; Osborne was ordered to pay back £1,666 by the parliamentary standards commissioner. Yet all four men continue to sit comfortably in Cameron’s cabinet.
In fact, writing in the Daily Mail in June 2009, the Tory-supporting commentator Peter Oborne castigated David Cameron for his “shameful decision” to “stand by the frauds and cheats inside the shadow cabinet”.
Naturally, two wrongs don’t make a right.
If the Conservative Party chairman is guilty of financial malfeasance, she should be punished. But here’s where it all gets rather murky. For a start, the accusations relate to Warsi’s stay in the west London property of Dr Wafik Moustafa, an Egyptian-born GP, back in . . . wait for it . . . 2008. Warsi says she was the guest of a Tory official, Naweed Khan, not Moustafa. Khan was living at the home of the latter and, according to Warsi, received “appropriate” payments from her “for the inconvenience and additional expense to which he was put when I stayed with him”. Khan has since issued a statement saying that Warsi did indeed pay him rent. Remember: under the lax expenses regime of 2007/2008, peers were not required to provide or keep receipts.
Then there is the credibility of her accuser. Moustafa is the chairman of the Conservative Arab Network (Can). I can reveal that on 14 May, Warsi wrote to Moustafa reminding him of the party’s refusal to allow Can “affiliated” or “official” status and warning him that he would face “prompt legal action” if he did not “remove the Conservative logo” from his website. (Read the letter on our website: newstatesman.com.)
Less than a fortnight later, Moustafa’s allegations against Warsi appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times. Coincidence?
Senior Tories have long been concerned about Moustafa and Can’s activities. The Conservative MPs Daniel Kawczynski and Conor Burns recently cut their ties with the group. “[Moustafa] was giving off-the-cuff remarks about Britain’s policies in the Middle East, and implying that he was speaking for the Conservative Party,” says a Tory backbencher who has attended Can events in the past. (“From a Conservative perspective . . .” began a question on Sky News to Moustafa, on the Arab spring.)
I asked Moustafa why he continued to refer to Burns as president of Can – despite the latter’s resignation. “His name has been removed from the website,” he replied airily. When I pointed out that it hadn’t (as of 29 May), there was a long pause on the other end of the phone. “Really? I’ll have to check on that.”
How far should we trust Moustafa? His claims seem outlandish. He told the Daily Mail that Warsi “disapproved” of him having bottles of alcohol in his home and threatened to “smash” them. Really? Is this the same Warsi who was pelted with eggs in 2009 after she stood up to a group of Muslim extremists in Luton who had accused her of not being a “practising Muslim”?
Moustafa claimed, in a letter dated 12 April to Andrew Feldman, the Conservative Party co-chairman, that he had donated “over £100,000” to the Tory party over the past two decades, a claim that a Conservative Campaign HQ source denies. Moustafa claimed to have had Warsi’s backing for a peerage application – which was subsequently rejected – but, again, the official at CCHQ says this is untrue and that it is further evidence of his lack of credibility.
“Who are we supposed to believe,” asks my source, “Sayeeda Warsi and Naweed Khan or a man with a clear axe to grind?”
Expenses aside, the bigger question is: how much more disproportionately negative coverage will Warsi be forced to endure? Here is a British Muslim politician whose promotion to the Tory front bench in 2007 was greeted by an odious article on the ConservativeHome website that denounced it as “the wrong signal at a time when Britain is fighting a global war against Islamic terrorism and extremism”.
“She’s a lawyer by training and has a family business to fall back on,” says a friend. “Is this job worth all the grief she gets?” However, I’m told, Warsi has no plans to quit the cabinet.
So, the question is: will Cameron, under pressure over his government’s various U-turns, sack her? Such a move would be a huge error of judgement – especially as Osborne, Gove et al would keep their jobs. At a stroke, the cabinet would lose 20 per cent of its women and 100 per cent of its ethnic minorities. Oh, and did I mention that the Conservative Party chairman is a rare non-millionaire, working-class northerner in a cabinet stuffed with millionaire, middle-class southerners? Would the Prime Minister be so foolish?