Sayeeda Warsi: The Tory peer who never plays it safe
She is a tough talker ready to take on anyone from hardcore Islamists to the BNP, which may explain why David Cameron has chosen her to lead his 'broken Britain' campaign. She speaks to our political editor, Jane Merrick
Sunday 28 February 2010
Sayeeda Warsi is tough. David Cameron's no-nonsense shadow communities minister belittled the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, as a "confused man" on Question Time and barely flinched when she was pelted with eggs by Islamist extremists while campaigning in Luton. But it is a warm and relaxed Baroness Warsi, barefoot with painted toenails, who opens the front door to me at her family home outside Wakefield.
She apologises because the boiler in her detached house has broken down: there is no central heating. We go into the dining room where there is an open fire burning. Her husband, Iftikhar Azam, makes a pot of tea and brings plates filled with chocolate biscuits.
Weeks away from the election, Warsi is on the verge of becoming the first Muslim member of a British cabinet. She will be in charge of Cameron's big idea: mending Britain's "broken society". Central to this will be using social action projects – community gardens or street pastor projects – to foster neighbourhood spirit.
I am sceptical about this rather woolly plan. I imagine Cameron, in his picturesque Oxfordshire village – all wellies and WI – believing that the same community spirit that rallies round to raise money for the church roof can be magically conjured up in the most deprived estates, and that, in turn, society can somehow be "fixed". That is if you believe society is "broken" in the first place.
But Warsi says the problem with 13 years of Labour government is that money has been pumped into deprived, mainly Labour, areas, with very little to show for it. As with previous Tory governments, she says, there will be a "retrenchment of the state", but the difference under Cameron is that people will not be left entirely alone: voluntary groups, social entrepreneurs or individual activists will be paid to set up community projects. Warsi calls it a "franchise model".
Surely the last thing deprived estates need is cuts. She replies: "Clearly, if the solution to all their problems was money, we would have solved it, wouldn't we? That should send out a strong signal to say: actually, money is not always the answer."
Warsi, 38, gets her hard-work ethic from her father, Safdar Hussain, who came to Britain from Punjab in the 1960s with just £2.50 to his name. After working in a mill, he set up his own successful bed furniture company. Sayeeda, the second of five daughters, was educated at Birkdale High School and Leeds University, where she studied law, and practised as a criminal defence lawyer before entering politics.
She inherited a "very clear ethos from dad; whether you call it a Yorkshire ethos, migrant ethos, Pakistani ethos. It was: you get out there and you work, and you work hard, and it doesn't matter what you do, you work for it. He used to say: 'I never want to see any of you down at the dole queue.' That was his big thing."
Warsi stood unsuccessfully as a Tory candidate in the 2005 election in Dewsbury, losing to Shahid Malik. She had already impressed party grandees, including Oliver Letwin, who had talent-spotted her at a fringe meeting at the party conference in 2003.
Cameron promoted her to vice-chairman of the party with responsibility for cities when he became leader. In 2007, he gave her a peerage, ensuring she could serve in his shadow cabinet, in charge of community cohesion and social action.
Does she want to be remembered as the first Muslim cabinet minister? She appears frustrated by the question: "When I am on television and they refer to me as a Muslim, I think, well, if I come across as half normal and they think 'she happens to be Muslim', that's a way of creating a better understanding between communities."
Later, I point out that there are some male Tory MPs who privately complain that a number of women in the shadow cabinet are there simply to make up the numbers. Warsi gives a hearty laugh. "I am sure they say worse than that: 'Look, she's a token brown woman from Yorkshire!'"
After the notorious Question Time last October, when Griffin became the first BNP figure to appear on the panel, Warsi earned praise for her performance. But her views on the BNP and immigration have caused controversy: two years ago, in an interview with this newspaper, she said supporters of the BNP had "legitimate concerns"; she is not retreating from her position: "There is a distinction between tackling the BNP and their racist ideology, and tackling the issues that bug people. The two are not the same."
In November, while on a tour in Luton with the Tory parliamentary candidate, she was attacked by a group of Islamist extremists. They pelted her with eggs and accused her of not being a proper Muslim. Rather than run, she challenged the men, from the banned group al-Muhajiroun, to a debate.
So, does she fear for her safety, from Muslim extremists or the BNP? "Now there are moments when I do stop to think – more for my children, really, than myself... But you are never going to make a big difference if you play it safe. There's this concept within the Asian community – kismet. You can't really translate it; it's fate, I suppose."
Despite her claims of straight-talking, I find it difficult to get Warsi to acknowledge any of the problems the Tories are having with strategy and the recent narrowing of opinion polls. She has visited more marginal seats than any other shadow cabinet member except Cameron. She says Tory support is "much stronger" there and does not envisage a hung parliament.
The only area on which she disagrees with Cameron is all-women shortlists, which she says are "insulting". The Tory leader said last month that the measure would have to be introduced for the final seat selections if not enough women were being selected.
In the next few days she will do a photoshoot for Marie Claire for an article on powerful women. One of the others to feature is Elle Macpherson. Warsi says the thought of her 5ft 2in self appearing alongside the model is giving her an "inferiority complex". But, actually, I cannot imagine Warsi being intimidated by anyone.
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