Baroness Warsi: 'I want to be able to live with myself after politics'

The Tory MP tells Oliver Wright why she quit the Government over its inaction towards the Gaza conflict

Oliver Wright
Sunday 10 August 2014 17:16 BST
Warsi feels Cameron has lost some of the reforming zeal which she signed up to before he was Tory party leader
Warsi feels Cameron has lost some of the reforming zeal which she signed up to before he was Tory party leader (Paul Cooper)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In the back garden of Sayeeda Warsi's Wakefield home there is a child's football net. You can see it from the windows of her front room, and recently, in the warm weather, her children have been using it a lot.

It's an oddly mundane object to conjure up emotion but, Warsi says, when she looks at it now she can't help but think about the four Palestinian boys killed by an Israeli shell playing football on a beach in Gaza.

"At the weekend my kids are out there playing football," says the baroness. "And that was just... what were those mothers thinking? What were those fathers thinking?"

She pauses. "I was not so naive to think we could go in there and fix it, but we could at least start by calling what we saw as fundamentally wrong and inhumane."

Some critics have said that Warsi's resignation last week as Foreign Office minister and the first Muslim to sit around the Cabinet table was calculated. They said she used the crisis to step down either because she did not get the promotion she wanted in the reshuffle or because she had fallen out with David Cameron and jumped before she was pushed.

But when you hear her talk about Gaza – and the story behind her departure – that doesn't ring true. Yes, she had long-standing differences with several of her Cabinet colleagues of which she is now free to talk about. But, you suspect, she would still be there inside the tent had it not been for Gaza.

Warsi reveals she said she finally made up her mind to quit following a meeting on Tuesday morning with the new Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. "I spoke to him that morning at about 7am at some length about accountability, what next and how do you rebuild the 40 per cent of Gaza that has been destroyed," she says. "And I got no indication that we had any clear thought or process about how that would happen or how we would push to make it happen.

"I was absolutely unconvinced that there would be any accountability for what had happened. I got a very clear sense that it was going to return to business as usual. I therefore thought I needed to resign."

She said that in the previous weeks leading up to her departure, she felt increasingly isolated in Government, and revealed that even Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had remained silent at a key meeting on the need for an arms embargo against Israel.

"I felt like a lone voice," she says. "The Lib Dems on this are being quite disingenuous. At the big meeting on this, where were the Lib Dems? Danny Alexander turned up and said nothing. It would have been helpful if I'd had two or three Lib Dem voices giving support to me. The fact is that they didn't.

"For me, this is all about policies and principles. Long after politics has come and gone, I want to be able to live with myself. And at this point I said, after politics has come and gone, can I live with myself? And I thought 'no I can't'."

Explaining why she did not speak to Cameron before announcing her departure, she says: "My resignation was not a bartering tool. It was not up for negotiation. I've felt that over the past four weeks, whether it was in Cabinet or the National Security Council or meetings, phone calls and text messages and one-to-ones, I had an access and opportunity to have my say at every level.

"This isn't about, 'Oh they didn't listen to me because they didn't hear me'. But you come to a point where the Government still won't use this language; the Government still won't move on these positions. Therefore, it's time for me to go.

"I wasn't going to go and say: 'If you don't do this, Prime Minister, I will resign.' That's not the way I operate. I said to him: 'I've tried everything I could, David, and we still disagree, and I've decided to resign.

"In the meetings that I had, I didn't say I was concerned. I said I fundamentally do not agree with the statements we're putting out. My exact words were that I was finding it increasingly difficult to be bound by collective responsibility.

"I couldn't have been clearer. I said I was having to stand at the despatch box and say lines I fundamentally did not agree with."

Warsi's criticism of Cameron is basically one of hypocrisy. While this government has not been shy about criticising other regimes for what it sees as human-rights abuses, on Israel, it has been deafeningly silent.

As she puts it: "One of the arguments I've heard from people is: 'Why don't you criticise Assad?' Well, we did. 'Why don't you criticise Isis?' Well we did. 'Why don't you criticise Iran?' We did. 'Why don't you criticise Putin?' We did. 'Why don't you criticise Israel?' Well, we didn't. That's the difference. It is about an inconsistent approach to our foreign policy. It is an inconsistency about our application of our values.

"That has impact on us both domestically and internationally. We go around the world talking about our values and human rights, and we will be accused of being hypocritical if we are seen to be applying them selectively."

Some of her anonymous critics on the Tory right claim the real reason she resigned was because she was not made foreign secretary in the recent reshuffle. But her defence is believable. "Apparently I wanted to be foreign secretary," she says, "but you can't have the big offices of state [and be in] the House of Lords. They can't say on the one hand that I didn't talk to him [the Prime Minister] and on the other that I wanted a better job."

What her resignation has done is both brought out those on the Tory right (and some very close to Cameron) who never liked her and allowed Warsi herself to reveal the inner tensions which have, up to now, not been exposed.

"I don't care if they say they disagreed with me. I don't care if they can't stand me. That's fine. What I won't have them do, when you work 10 times as hard as anyone else to get to where you got to, is to get there and hear: 'She can't really do the job.' It sends out the wrong message out for other people who want to do this. Some of the bitchiest women I've ever met in my life are the men in politics."

Then she adds, in relation to the Guido Fawkes website, which has been particularly virulent about her departure: "I worry about being on the wrong side of history rather than being on the wrong side of some two-bit right-wing blog site."

Warsi is still basically a Cameron loyalist. But she does feel that he has lost some of the reforming zeal which she signed up to before he was Tory party leader.

"When he went to Blackpool to make his speech to become leader, he first came to Dewsbury to a social action project I was running. We then went to Blackpool and I introduced the speech ... I am absolutely part of the Cameron era and compassionate Conservatism. I thought this is a guy who gets today's Britain. He's a new kind of Conservative. He was really clear that values were values that included all of Britain.

"[But] I think the party has shifted. The party leadership has shifted since then. I think over time it will be a regressive move because we have to appeal to all of Britain, not just because morally it's the right thing to do, but because it's an electoral reality.

"I was party chairman for two and a half years, and one of the biggest things for me was to recruit people with different backgrounds. We started an internship scheme and we started Conservative friends of India, Conservative friends of Pakistan. We brought the BME groups into the mainstream campaign. Some of that has been lost, which is a shame."

Then she adds: "The electoral reality is that we will not win outright Conservative majorities until we start attracting more of the ethnic vote. This issue is not linked to a particular ethnic vote. It is a broader issue about the party being open to a broader range of views and experiences."

So what now for Warsi? At the moment she has no specific plans. While she rules out writing a no-holds-barred memoir of her time in government, that is not to say she won't write a memoir at all. Or that she hasn't been keeping detailed records while in office.

"I am not writing a kiss-and-tell diary because I don't do kiss and tell," is all she'll say.

She is also intriguingly complimentary about Boris Johnson, contrasting him indirectly with Cameron – and perhaps opening the door to another possible leader.

"The reason why Boris appeals to voters is because Boris presents himself as the person he is," she says.

"Boris does not pretend not to be posh. Boris doesn't pretend not to have had an Eton education. What is required now is an age of authenticity in politics, and it doesn't matter what background you come from as long as you are authentic in that identity. People are not anti-posh or anti-brown – people are anti-false."

She then adds: "Whether people liked me or loathed me, I do sit comfortable knowing that I did it my way. It was me."

And it is unlikely to be the last of her, either.

Curriculum vitae

1971 Born in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Her father, Safdar, a mill worker, emigrated from Pakistan.

1982 Attends Birkdale High School, Dewsbury.

1987 Attends Dewsbury College.

1989 Reads law at Leeds University. Attends the College of Law in York, qualifying as a solicitor, initially for the CPS and then in her own practice.

1990 Marries a cousin in an arranged marriage. The couple have one daughter. They divorce in 2007.

2004 Quits job as solicitor to stand as MP for Dewsbury. Is first Muslim woman candidate for Tories.

2005 Loses Dewsbury election. Later appointed vice-chairman of Conservative Party.

2007 Comes to national prominence when she secures the release of a British teacher imprisoned in Sudan for allowing pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad. Is given a life peerage as Baroness Warsi of Dewsbury and becomes shadow minister of state for Community Cohesion and Social Action.

2009 Wins acclaim for her attack on racism during a controversial Question Time programme featuring BNP leader Nick Griffin.

2010 Defends the wearing of burqas, arguing it is a matter for individuals. Becomes Minister without Portfolio.

2012 David Cameron orders inquiry into whether she had breached the ministerial code by not declaring her business partner on a Pakistan trip.

2012 Appointed foreign office minister and minister for faith and communities.

2014 Resigns from both positions.

Milo Fisher

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