A ceasefire in Gaza has been announced, and agreed by Palestinian groups there. Israel said yesterday that it has destroyed all tunnels into its territory. Operation Protective Edge appears to be drawing to a close. As a Foreign Office Minister, Sayeeda Warsi will have been well briefed about this development. So why has she chosen this moment to resign from her place around the Cabinet table?
Part of the answer lies in the impact that Israel’s military action is having on Muslim opinion in Britain. It is hard for Conservatives who have no direct experience of it to understand the scale of the grief and fury: after all, most Tory members and MPs are concentrated in deep blue seats with few ethnic or religious minority voters. That there is no comparable protest over the slaughter of Muslims by ISIS in Iraq, or by both sides and all factions in Syria, or over the treatment of Christian and other minorities in Muslim-majority countries is beside the political point. A gale of rage is howling through Britain’s Islamic communities. Some senior Tories believe that it is unlikely to have electoral consequences next May in the northern and midlands marginals which could swing the result. As I indicated on Saturday, I am not so sure – especially given this morning’s news.
Warsi will have experienced the anger of Muslim (and specifically Pakistani-origin) voters directly in ways unfamiliar to those unfamiliar with them. The temperature of politics among many is set at a relatively low boiling point, which will long have been breached in relation to Gaza. They are not watching the BBC – whose coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict is itself always controversial. They are watching Al Jazeera and following social media. In her time on the Conservative front bench, Warsi will have been lobbied extensively over Israel’s incursions into Gaza and Lebanon in 2009 and 2006. And she herself has views in any event, which have gradually been leaking out on Twitter. I am told that she “blew her top” about Israel’s actions at a recent meeting of the National Security Council. It would have been a warning sign for those who were present.
That they were in no position to act on it takes one to the heart of the matter. In one sense, there is no more to Warsi quitting than meets the eye. There may not have been a shift in Government policy on Israel/Palestine since William Hague left the Foreign Office, but the balance of opinion at the top of Cabinet is arguably different. Warsi will have picked this up immediately. Her views on Israel and Gaza are genuine and profound. This resignation was always a possibility. That this is so must surely have occurred to Team Cameron. How come, then, that the Prime Minister was in no place to head it off – to persuade the Baroness that her resignation would be exploited by Labour (Sadiq Khan is already off the mark), and further the electoral damage done to the Party? For after all, Warsi is entirely a creation of the Conservative leadership. She never won a Commons election.
The answer lies in the nature of the relationship between that leadership and Warsi – and what it tells us about the Tory approach in opposition to modernisation generally and ethnic minority voters specifically. After the 2005 election, the leadership grasped the problem, but botched the solution. Little if any research was done into which particular ethnic minority voters were more or less likely to vote Conservative. Too much stress was placed on Pakistani-origin voters and too little on, say, Indian-origin ones (who are more likely to back the Party). There was a consequent rushing-around for a quick fix solution. One was duly found in the form of the articulate former candidate for Dewsbury and Vice-Chairman of the Party. Warsi was rushed into the Lords. And then the problems for David Cameron began.
Very simply, her views on extremism and integration were not his, or those of most of the Party. My experience of working with her on the front bench was that she was testy but able. The best solution for the leadership would have been to free her from the cabin in which it had confined her – to send her to Transport, say, or Health or Climate Change. Instead, she was kept in posts in which her views and Cameron’s instincts were often at loggerheads. It followed that the higher she was promoted, the more she was confined. Her media performances could be very fine but were often unguarded. Consequently, they were carefully controlled. I would be amazed if she didn’t ask herself, long before her promotion to Party Chairman: “Am I only here as the token Muslim woman?” By the time of the Eton Mess incident last March, she must have concluded that the answer was Yes.
It would have been clear long before the reshuffle that the Warsi experiment had failed: her removal as Chairman may have marked the point of no return. It is no secret that some near the top of the Party wanted a solution last month that would have been best for all concerned – namely, for Warsi to leave the Government then. Such a move would have avoided today’s resignation. But Cameron would have felt himself in no position to act. Warsi hasn’t denied claims that she is keeping a diary. He will have feared that he would be damned, were she dismissed, by pre-election publication unfairly claiming that his leadership is tainted by tokenism and anti-Muslim prejudice. The irony is that he is now open to exactly this possibility. He has been brought to a place to which his own decisions have taken him.