The traditional mid-term jitters of a governing party – lived out through the high-drama and low-politics of local elections – appear to be focusing on our co-Chair, Baroness Warsi. For months now there has been a steady stream of critical pieces about the Lady, attacking her for everything from perceived laziness to political misjudgment. The combination of a poor showing in council elections and her remarks on the BBC on Thursday evening (of which more later) will only intensify this rumbling animosity. But the Lady’s critics are wrong and David Cameron would be wise to continue ignoring them.
First of all, let’s tackle those questions about Lady Warsi’s work-ethic. There were shrill complaints about the Baroness’ lack of media appearances during the Cruddas-scandal – the party fielded Michael Fallon and Francis Maude to carry out most of the rebuttal. But the idea that this quietness was out of either laziness or fear on her part is absurd. Lady Warsi is the co-Chair of the party with responsibility for campaigning and promoting the party’s grassroots – she isn’t in charge of our central fundraising operation and wasn’t Cruddas’ boss. I didn’t see her co-Chair on Newsnight either. Keeping her distant from the sleazy stories being peddled in the Sunday Times was a wise choice and was not her choice. She is the front-guy for promoting a Conservative (as opposed to a coalition) agenda in Britain – to tie her into a toxic tale of dodgy promises and dirty cash would have been a strategic disaster. What’s more, day-in day-out Lady Warsi is trooping from local party to local party – raising money, knocking on doors and lifting morale while her colleagues with departments to run are tied up in Whitehall – lazy she most certainly isn’t.
And why is she the go-to-spokesperson for the Conservative Party’s political advocacy? Because she is refreshingly, bracingly and attractively straightforward. Lady Warsi is not known for mincing her words and nor is she perceived by the public as a standard politico (or, worse I’m afraid, as a classic Tory). Her northern tones, colloquialisms, powerful ability to laugh at herself and the excesses of politics and her obvious conviction are all huge assets to a party that is too often perceived as manned by ex-SpAds, aristocrats and smooth communication executives. What is more, her kind of conservatism fits neatly with her presentational skills. I don’t always agree with Lady Warsi (some of her comments about homosexuality or Islamism have, in my view, been misjudged) but the vision of Toryism that she battles for is at once inclusive and traditional, orthodox and accessible. If we are ever to win a majority we will need to speak to voters in Britain’s cities and ethnic minorities much more effectively, without losing our identity as a conservative movement, Lady Warsi is one of few senior Conservatives naturally capable of walking that tight-rope effectively.
Which leads us to the latest controversy surrounding the Baroness – her remarks about Ukip to the BBC. Lady Warsi suggested that it was interesting to note that the decline in BNP candidates almost exactly matched the increase in Ukip ones. Not that the two parties were the same but that one fringe political movement had been replaced by another. The reaction from Ukip was predictable if offensive. From many Tories it was unforgivably disloyal and overblown. It is Baroness Warsi’s job to be hyper-partisan, to support the Conservative Party and to attack and undermine our enemies. To criticise her for that is akin to attacking a baker for making you bread. And her critics cannot all be right all at once, Lady Warsi can’t possibly be the work-shy wet without the killer instinct at the same time as the brutal and misguided assassin. The fact that many who accuse her of being the former also wheel out the latter shows an inconsistency on their part which suggests the reasons for their animosity are more personal than they are political.
I’m glad we have a ‘campaigning Chairman’ – a woman who travels up and down the country lending her support and her firepower to constituency parties rather than relying on the media to get her message across. I’m glad we have a Chair who ‘speaks human’ (to use an ugly but accurate phrase). I’m glad, too, that our Chair is a woman and an Asian (not that those are qualifications in themselves, but they are the icing on the impressive cake of skills possessed by the Baroness). And I’m glad to have a Chair who understands that as well as seeking to steal Ukip votes we must attack them as we would any other threat to our electoral success.
If a reshuffle is to come, and if David Cameron feels he must do something to appease a jittery party, then Sayeeda Warsi may well be on the No 10 hit-list. But it would be a mistake to lose such a powerful, forceful and effective advocate for mainstream conservatism. We should all lay off the Lady. She’s doing a fine job.