Baroness Sayeeda Warsi: Stirring the Eton Mess

The Foreign Office minister who boldly condemns her own party can be just as frank about her own profile. But on human rights, Sarah Morrison finds her unhelpfully reticent

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, one of the most senior women in the Conservative party, is known for speaking her mind. She sells herself as a plain-talking, no-nonsense, working-class politician from Yorkshire, who fights for what she believes. This is the woman who stood up to the BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question Time, sparked a public debate when she said that Islamophobia had "passed the dinner-table test" and last month, on television, waved a front page on No 10's "Eton Mess".

We first spoke when I asked her about the growing number of ex-Muslims; she called straight back and offered an insightful comment. So, I was surprised when I knocked on her office door, deep within the House of Lords, and found the Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs flanked by a private secretary, an advisor and a press officer from the foreign office. They were all going to sit in on the interview, I was told. One recorded our chat, another scribbled notes, the third told me he had cancelled a trip to be with his minister during this important time.

I was here at her invitation to talk frankly about how the Conservatives were prioritising human rights. Instead, I got what felt like a scripted dialogue on the "robust" work the Foreign Office was doing overseas. The baroness defended Theresa May's assertion that Britain could leave the Human Rights Act and refused to be drawn into any criticism of domestic issues.

When asked what was the biggest human rights issue facing Britain today, the 43-year-old politician said it was not allowing "a culture of rights to develop to such a point where we rarely talk about responsibility". And this from the minister with responsibility for human rights. I was confused.

It's only when I ask her what life is like for women in her party – and across Whitehall as a whole – that I get a sense of why she is holding her tongue. "I don't think politics serves women well, generally," she says. "We have some incredibly successful women who've had great careers; who come into politics and can be left feeling quite frustrated as to the contribution that they can make. You know, sometimes it's incredibly difficult to have your voice heard.

"The kinds of things you find in politics are unfortunately the kinds of things you find in any sort of school environment: you can sometimes be very lonely; you might not make enough friends; you might not be in the right clique; you don't get to express your view all the time; the whipping system requires absolute conformity on issues. I just think it's fascinating because politics is one of the most highly opinionated professions in the world and sometimes you're expected to come to parliament and not have an opinion."

Her reticence starts to make sense now. I feel that she is learning, however hesitantly, to play the game.

Is it harder for women? She says women find "the politics of politics harder to deal with" and find "gameplaying more of a waste of time.... Sometimes the kind of macho-ness that comes with politics women can find quite off-putting."

It was reported that David Cameron was being lobbied to remove the senior minister from her post after the Eton Mess joke. Shortly after, Culture Secretary Maria Miller resigned from cabinet (the Baroness had supported her, she says), leaving only three women remaining.

Do the Conservatives have a problem with women, I ask. "The experience in politics for women is very, very similar across political parties," she says. "You know we have had a bigger problem in the recent past with not having enough women... We still have a problem. We don't have enough women in politics. We don't have enough women in the senior echelons of government."

There is also the whiteness of the party. Did its failure to appeal to a more diverse electorate cost it an overall majority in 2010? "It was the non-white vote … it's no doubt," Warsi breaks in. "Much more needs to be done [around] black and minority ethnic voting … I don't want a Conservative Party that loses elections because demographics have changed and we haven't caught up with it. We have made progress, but much more needs to be done."

On this she is clear; even frank. But when I ask her about her brief –about which I believe she is passionate – I can't seem to get her off script. Despite praising the work of the Government around sexual violence in conflict, religious freedom and reducing hate crime, she mostly defends the fact that her brief exists at all. It's as if she were talking to the anti-human rights brigade.

But she is against prisoners being given the vote, defends the detention of female asylum seekers and controversial "fast-track" system, and definitely does not want to talk about Edward Snowden and press freedom. She sees nothing wrong with scrapping the Human Rights Act (as long as UN convention rights remain protected), adding: "We will probably step away from some of the more crazy interpretations [of the Act] which I think is a good thing. What I don't want is a culture in the UK where people start poo-pooing human rights and talk about [them] in the same sentence as health and safety and political correctness."

So far, so Tory. Has the baroness become more pragmatic since the Eton Mess joke went down so badly? "I've just been me. I've just been me at the beginning. I was me in the middle and I'm me now," she protests. "If at times they thought I was fantastic and the bees' knees, then fine. If people think I'm not the bees' knees any more, then so what? I'm still me. I don't change what I think about myself because some right-wing blog might have something to say about me. You have to come into politics with a clear sense of what you want to achieve and an exit date, because I think it makes you sane." Her exit date? "There's the date I'd like to leave by and then there's the date that if I haven't left by, my nearest and dearest will come up to me and say: 'Love, you know what? It's time to go.'"

I go to ask her another point about women not having opinions in politics, but she stops me. "I said you're not allowed to have one. I didn't say I didn't have one." That says it all.

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