David Cameron retains control over the future of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. He cedes control in relation to Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party co-chairman. As a result Hunt is spared the independent scrutiny of a civil servant. Warsi awaits the verdict of the official assigned the task of judging whether or not the ministerial code has been violated.
The contrast is marked to the point of being screamingly unsubtle. Cameron cannot afford to sub-contract his powers of patronage to a civil servant in relation to his Culture Secretary. This would be a wild card too many in what is already a situation where the Prime Minister has limited control, what with the Leveson Inquiry and revelatory texts or emails surfacing every few weeks. As far as he can, he will decide on his minister's destiny, aware that if Hunt were to go, the focus would move to the very top of the Government.
Evidently, Warsi is more dispensable. Her future will be decided by Sir Alex Allan, the civil servant who stands ready to advise on the ministerial code when asked to do so. He is investigating whether Warsi broke ministerial rules over an official trip she made to Pakistan with a business partner. Perhaps Sir Alex will declare there was nothing amiss or that it was a trivial error. But no one, including Cameron, knows for sure what the verdict will be. He will not decide the fate of the party's co-chairman.
The reason for her dispensability has little to do with the politics of ethnicity. Cameron knows that his party struggles to win the support of ethnic minorities. The lack of support is a persistent theme of Andrew Cooper, his polling guru in No 10. Probably his sensitivity in relation to the Conservative Party, race and the electoral implications made it more tempting for him to bring in an outsider to adjudicate on Warsi. If he has to sack her, he will have ammunition from a non-partisan source. But he would not be doing this if she had been the Culture Secretary with a special adviser being highly co-operative with News International. Similarly, if Hunt had been chairman he might well have been deemed dispensable and sent to the standards watchdog.
That is partly because Hunt would have failed to make a success as party chairman just as Warsi has. The way modern parties have evolved makes it impossible for virtually anyone to be a wholehearted success in the post. Any occupant, irrespective of background and race, would be more vulnerable than a cabinet minister who was in trouble for carrying out precisely what his or her leader had wanted in relation to News International. Warsi is a good performer on the media, conversational and engaging. But she had no authority because she was in no position to be authoritative. Caught in a political saga about control, she was never really in control of very much. The key party decisions are taken by Cameron and George Osborne, and for the Coalition by the Quad that also includes Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. Osborne is sometimes referred to as the real Chair of the Conservative Party, although this perception is now doing him considerable harm. Other non-elected advisers in No 10 and the Treasury contribute to policy or strategic discussions, but the circle is small. Warsi has never been a key member.
A pattern is forming. Under the previous Labour government, key decisions were taken famously by Blair/Brown and their advisers. After his second election win, Blair introduced a Chair of the Labour Party. The first occupant was Charles Clarke, who was a little disappointed and bewildered to be given the post. He was greatly relieved when he was moved to a department. His successor, John Reid, was an effective secretary of state for the Today programme, but he performed this role in whatever portfolio he happened to hold at the time. Cameron lacks such a figure and has not often asked Warsi to be his Government's voice at 8.10am on Radio 4, or, for that matter, at any other time of the day. At times of crisis, there is a preference within No 10 for Michael Gove, but the Education Secretary chooses his public interventions selectively.
The last time the relationship between party chairman and prime minister was pivotal was in 1990 when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher. Major made Chris Patten his Chairman, and was closer to him than he was to Norman Lamont, his Chancellor. The relationship was an unqualified success, an axis that gave the impression that a new government had been elected, a key factor behind the Conservatives' victory when the actual election was held in 1992. I am told that Osborne hopes to secure a 1992-style victory next time, but, by 2015, he and Cameron will not be able to convey novelty in quite the same way.
Ever since Patten lost his seat in 1992, the role of Party Chairman, even for the Conservatives, has faded in significance. Parties themselves are less powerful, or at least have fewer members. Increasingly, power is concentrated at the very top. For Labour, too, the key relationship is between Ed Miliband and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. The outcome of their conversations will be far more important than the results of the newly promoted Jon Cruddas's policy review or the decisions made elsewhere in the shadow Cabinet or the wider Labour party. In truth, nothing else matters very much if leaders and their chancellors or shadow chancellors form fruitful political relationships.
Cameron will have sensed the diminished role when he appointed Warsi before the last election, a party chair who had not been an MP and without testing political experience. Obviously, he was attracted to the symbolic potency of appointing someone from an ethnic minority, as part of a superficial modernising programme. Her removal would be symbolically damaging, too, but of no great practical significance.
For now at least, the fate of the Conservatives lies in the hands of Cameron and Osborne, in the same way that Labour's immediate prospects will be determined by its leader and shadow chancellor. Hunt is safe for now. Warsi might not be. Both are peripheral figures dancing to the tunes of the duo who matter at the very top.Reuse content