One feature of politics that is routinely forgotten in Westminster is that most people, most of the time are not paying attention and don’t really know what the government is up to. (The opposition are even more invisible.) Thus there is a tendency to think that the whole nation is abuzz with chatter about, for example, revealing text messages sent by Jeremy Hunt and the question of whether or not he should be referred by the Prime Minister to an independent advisor over his alleged breach of the ministerial code. It isn’t.
This fiction is sustained by periodic opinion polls that ask questions such as “should Jeremy Hunt be referred to the independent advisor over his alleged breach of the ministerial code?” which is like asking “do you think a politician who is accused of doing something wrong actually did something wrong?” The answer will generally be “yes”. That doesn’t tell you much about anything other than the low esteem in which all politicians are held.
There are, however, exceptions. Sometimes issues cut through to the wider, non-specialist public. Sometimes also the persistent bakground hum of a scandal permeates the national consciousness, more as a nasty whiff of sleaze than a focused sense of outrage. It is in the latter category that the phone-hacking saga and the Leveson inquiry probably sit. Few will familiarise themselves with the exact chronology of emails, regulatory decisions and quasi-judicial whatnot. Many will detect something unseemly in the relationship between ministers and the news organisation that, somewhere down the chain of command, hacked the voicemail of a murdered teenager.
There is, however, another category of political cut-through, which is the stories that resonate with particular segments of the population. It is into this bracket that, I suspect, falls the treatment of Sayeeda Warsi, the Tory co-chair accused of a range of improprieties connected to registration of business interests.
Baroness Warsi has been referred to the advisor on ministerial standards and is under pressure to stand down from her party role – which brings with it a cabinet seat – while the investigation is under way. The contrast with the treatment of Hunt, who has been spared such indignity, is conspicuous. The reason for the different treatment is fairly straightforward. If Hunt is deemed to have failed in his duty to be impartial in adjudicating News International’s bid for a 100 per cent stake in BSkyB, questions naturally arise about David Cameron’s judgement in appointing him to that function and defending him for so long. By contrast, Warsi can be sacrificed without much danger of stray bullets hitting Downing Street.
Besides, Hunt is popular among MPs and a useful, loyal minister. Warsi is the subject of a long, hostile campaign by Tory backbenchers who want a chairman who sits in the House of Commons and will be a more effective channel for backbench opinion to the PM. MPs want, in other words, a chairman who looks and sounds a bit more like them. And there’s the problem. Warsi is a Muslim woman from the north of England. There are not many on the Conservative benches. Naturally, the anti-Warsi camp is very sensitive to the charge that it is motivated by racism, sexism or any other prejudice. It is all just a question of political effectiveness, they insist. That is plainly a bit disingenuous. There are plenty of white Tory men who would love a seat in the cabinet and flatter themselves by thinking they have been passed over because of a positive discrimination policy in favour of ethnic and gender diversity.
The crucial point, however, is that the different treatment of Hunt and Warsi will be noticed much more among those voters for whom the promotion of an Asian-British woman to the cabinet is a big deal. It won’t cut through in much of the country, but it will be amplified in precisely those communities where lurks suspicion of the Tories as exclusive and insensitive to racism. This has been identified by Downing Street pollsters as a key strategic weakness for the party and an obstacle in Cameron’s ambitions to win a parliamentary majority.
Particular faith or immigrant communities are acutely aware of who from their number has “made it” in Britain. This is a perception that cuts across party lines and penetrates well beyond the usual level of apathy and lack of attention to the Westminster circus. In parallel with this awareness runs hyper-awareness of anything that resembles unchecked prejudice. Consider, for example, the trouble that Ken Livingstone got into when he appeared repeatedly insensitive to concerns raised about comments he made to and about London’s Jewish community. People who might not otherwise have closely followed the London mayoral race knew that there was a problem with Ken and anti-Semitism, even if they couldn’t precisely pin point what it was.
This is the danger that Cameron runs with Warsi. It is a blind spot for him since he no doubt has absolute confidence in his own credentials as a man of great fairness, wholly lacking in racism. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there are people who don’t share his confidence and for whom it is symbolically important that a member of their community – or even just someone with the same colour skin as them – has reached the highest echelons of power. It matters that they then glance across at events in Westminster, hear a bit about some scandal and, without taking in all the details, clock that the posh white guy gets let off the hook while the Asian lady gets hung out to dry. That is hardly going to reassure them that the Tories are no longer a rich men’s club.