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Indepedent interview: Sayeeda Warsi: The Baroness with bad news for the old guard

Britain’s first Muslim Cabinet minister tells her Tory colleagues to wake up to what’s happening in the country. Oliver Wright meets Sayeeda Warsi

Published in The Independent on Monday 16th April 2012 by Oliver Wright

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is standing, surrounded by large sacks of African chillies, having an animated conversation with a former nuclear submarine engineer about his new range of hot sauces. Since we met five hours ago, we’ve already launched the Tories’ Welsh local government election campaign in Newport; visited the first “wireless” town centre in Monmouth; and toured a women’s refuge in Cardiff.

But for the moment, as we sample the Hot Diggidy Dog sauces (“You just can’t take the spice,” Warsi jokes), Simon Llewellyn, the firm’s boss, wants to bend her ear about bank lending. “You can only get a loan now if you’re already successful enough not to need it,” he laments. She listens, suggests a new government scheme which might help him, and when he still seems downbeat promises to personally deliver a letter of complaint to the Treasury. Then we’re off again.

Ahead is a party fundraising evening (with a “luxury” pub finger buffet) in the Vale of Glamorgan and a three-hour drive to the Salford Premier Inn for the night. And that’s day one. Tomorrow we’ll tour the new Blue Peter studio, watch five former Lib Dem councillors in Rochdale defect to the Tories and visit a steam railway in the Rossendale Valley before Warsi heads off to Preston for more visits and then a fundraiser in Penrith.

As co-chairman of the Conservative Party, Warsi, 41, does these 48-hour visits around the country every week for nine months of the year. It is a gruelling schedule, but there has been little sympathy for her among some of her Tory colleagues in Westminster. Some have sounded less than impressed with their chairman. Anonymous briefers in Westminster variously paint her as a “lightweight” not up to the job; “over-promoted” because of her race and gender; never elected to office; “not to be trusted” for big media performances; and about to be sacked in a reshuffle. So are they right?

In person it is clear that Warsi – the second of five daughters of a Punjab migrant who settled in Dewsbury and started his own furniture company – is a very different kind of Tory Cabinet minister. She speaks 19 to the dozen, sometimes switching mid-sentence between Urdu and English. She says what she thinks, in a strong Yorkshire accent, and doesn’t really do Westminster diplomatic speak. She hasn’t always had privilege and doesn’t much care for it. She is blunt about wanting to make the Conservative Party more like her and less like her critics (middle-aged white men, for the most part). You suspect that’s really why they don’t like her.

She says she sees her job as party chair not as representing MPs to the leader,but representing the grassroots, and in particular the northern towns and cities which the party has never really cracked electorally. “One of the criticisms is that I should be a strong voice at the table for, say, the Right of our party or the 1922 [committee of backbenchers],” she says. “Of course I have to speak for all of the party but the ’22 have got quite a loud voice as it is. “The voice that isn’t heard is our activists. These are the people who don’t get to hear or speak to the Prime Minister all of the time. I must make sure that the voices that are heard the least are the voices that are passed back to the Prime Minister.”

Warsi writes a fortnightly report for David Cameron on what she see and hears on her tours around the country and says there is a mismatch between the intrigue of the Westminster village and what bothers Conservative activists. “The easy part of being a Conservative is to sit in Westminster and be a navel gazer,” she warns. “I don’t think it’s my job to stand outside Westminster waiting for some camera to appear so I can jump in front of it and give a 30-second snippet. I’m more effective if I’m out on the ground.”

Her analysis of the Tory problem at the next election is pertinent. She points out that in order to win an overall majority the party cannot rely on the Shires and must do better in the kind of places, like Dewsbury, where she grew up. “The battleground will be the 35 most marginal seats that we hold and the 35 seats which we need to win. If you see where our marginal seats are they are predominantly in the North. They are predominantly in urban areas. And they are predominantly in seats which have large non-white populations. “Those are the areas we need to concentrate on. We have to win more seats which are urban and get votes from people who are not white.”

This means targeting ethnic voters who, Tory internal polling shows, share many of the party’s values but instinctively vote Labour. “It’s about how we make the brand relevant, how we make those communities feel that we can be a home for them. We need to do that nationally in the language that we use and the way we come across. You can’t turn up at a temple six months before an election and hope it will all be alright. It’s about ongoing engagement. We have to look, feel and think like the whole of the country.”

Warsi has the support of Cameron, but her position has led to complaints from some senior Tories that her strategy is just window dressing. Warsi, who is Britain’s first Muslim Cabinet minister, does not agree. “Every time I go out and campaign, people who walk away from it see a face of the Conservative Party that is probably not the stereotype that the Labour Party would like to paint,” she says. “Every time you have human contact you chip away at that myth they’re trying to create. We have to look, feel and think like the whole of the country. The more you treat it like an add-on the more it behaves like an add-on.” So why, if this is the strategy, did the Conservatives, along with Labour, do so badly in the Bradford West by-election where the Muslim vote moved squarely behind George Galloway?

Warsi admits that both parties were out-campaigned on the ground by Respect, and is surprisingly forthcoming in her praise for Galloway. “I don’t begrudge him. Not one minute,” she says. “Eighteen thousand people came out of their homes and voted for that man so whether we like it or not we’ve got to respect the democratic process.” Travelling around with her and talking to the Conservatives she meets, it is clear that the party’s Westminster troubles of the past few weeks have taken their toll. Outside London it is not “donorgate” that resonates but the perceived attack on pensioners in the Budget which people mention time and time again. “That has damaged us badly,” says one councillor. “It was very badly handled.”

But in stark contrast to the Westminster sniping against Warsi, no one has a bad word to say about her – even privately. They like the fact that she is travelling to places which would not be seen as natural Tory territory, and her lack of pomposity plays well among activists. Warsi herself is unsentimental about the future (she would like to do a cookery show and write more if she leaves government), but the critics who hope she will be sacked in the next reshuffle are likely to be disappointed.

The logic behind her assent still remains. In short: if Cameron is to win at the next election, the Conservatives need Baroness Warsi rather more than she needs them.

A life in brief: from Punjab to Yorkshire Born Dewsbury, West Yorks, 1971.

Education: Birkdale High School and Leeds University, where she studied law before practising as a criminal defence lawyer.

Career: Not a typical Tory, at one stage working for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and counting Respect Party leader Salma Yayoob as a childhood friend. Warsi drifted into Conservative circles in the 1990s, and in 2003 attended the party conference in Blackpool, where Oliver Letwin suggested she should become a candidate. Two years later she stood for election in Dewsbury. She lost, but by then had come to the attention of David Cameron who decided that if a young, Asian, northern, working class Tory could not be elected to office she could at least be appointed. In 2007 he gave her a peerage, ensuring she could serve in the shadow Cabinet. She came to wider public prominence in 2009 when, at short notice, she had to stand in for William Hague on a now infamous Question Time debate with the BNP’s Nick Griffin. Her performance won her widespread praise. “I’d spent years fighting [the BNP] on the ground in Dewsbury – they were not abstract people to me. I knew he [Griffin] just needed to open his gob for long enough and he would hang himself,” she recalled.

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