The baroness with bad news for the old guard

Britain's first Muslim Cabinet minister tells her colleagues to wake up to what's happening in the country. Oliver Wright meets Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

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The Independent Online

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is standing, surrounded by large sacks of African chillies, having an animated conversation with a former nuclear submarine engineer about his new range of hot sauces.

Since we met five hours ago, we've already launched the Tories' Welsh local government election campaign in Newport; visited the first "wireless" town centre in Monmouth; and toured a women's refuge in Cardiff.

But for the moment, as we sample the Hot Diggidy Dog sauces, Simon Llewellyn, the firm's boss, wants to bend her ear about bank lending.

"You can only get a loan now if you're already successful enough not to need it," he laments. She listens, suggests a new government scheme which might help him, and when he still seems downbeat promises to personally deliver a letter of complaint to the Treasury. Then we're off again. Ahead is a party fundraising evening in the Vale of Glamorgan and a three-hour drive to the Salford Premier Inn for the night. That's day one.

Tomorrow we'll tour the new Blue Peter studio, watch five former Lib Dem councillors in Rochdale defect to the Tories and visit a steam railway in the Rossendale Valley before Warsi heads to Preston for more visits and then a fundraiser in Penrith.

As co-chairman of the Conservative Party, Warsi, 41, does these 48-hour visits around the country every week for nine months of the year.

It is a gruelling schedule, but there has been little sympathy for her among some of her Tory colleagues in Westminster. Some paint her as a "lightweight" not up to the job; "over-promoted" because of her race and gender; never elected to office; and about to be sacked in a reshuffle. So are they right?

In person it is clear that Warsi – the second of five daughters of a Punjab migrant who settled in Dewsbury and started his own furniture company – is a different kind of Tory Cabinet minister. She speaks 19 to the dozen, sometimes switching mid-sentence between Urdu and English. She says what she thinks, in a strong Yorkshire accent, and doesn't really do Westminster diplomatic speak.

She is blunt about wanting to make the Conservative Party more like her and less like her critics (middle-aged white men, for the most part). She says she sees her job as party chair not as representing MPs to the leader, but representing the grassroots, and in particular the northern towns and cities which the party has never really cracked electorally.

"One of the criticisms is that I should be a strong voice at the table for, say, the Right of our party or the 1922 [committee of backbenchers]," she says. "Of course I have to speak for all of the party but the '22 have got quite a loud voice as it is.

"The voice that isn't heard is our activists. These are the people who don't get to hear or speak to the Prime Minister all of the time."

Warsi writes a fortnightly report for David Cameron on what she sees and hears on her tours around the country.

Her analysis of the Tory problem at the next election is pertinent. She points out that in order to win an overall majority the party cannot rely on the Shires and must do better in the kind of places, like Dewsbury.

"The battleground will be the 35 most marginal seats that we hold and the 35 seats which we need to win. If you see where our marginal seats are they are predominantly in the North. They are predominantly in urban areas. And in seats which have large non-white populations."

"This means targeting ethnic voters who, Tory internal polling shows, share many of the party's values but instinctively vote Labour. It's about how we make the brand relevant, how we make those communities feel that we can be a home for them. You can't turn up at a temple six months before an election and hope it will all be alright. We have to look, feel and think like the whole of the country."

Warsi has the support of Cameron, but her position has led to complaints from some senior Tories that her strategy is just window dressing. Warsi, who is Britain's first Muslim Cabinet minister, does not agree. "Every time I go out and campaign, people who walk away from it see a face of the Conservative Party that is probably not the stereotype that the Labour Party would like to paint," she says.

Travelling around with her and talking to the Conservatives she meets, it is clear that the party's Westminster troubles of the past few weeks have taken their toll. Outside London it is not "donorgate" that resonates but the perceived attack on pensioners in the Budget which people mention time and time again.

Warsi herself is unsentimental about the future (she would like to do a cookery show and write more if she leaves government), but the critics who hope she will be sacked in the next reshuffle are likely to be disappointed.

The logic behind her assent still remains. In short: if Cameron is to win at the next election, the Conservatives need Baroness Warsi rather more than she needs them.