Baroness Warsi: Fighting on every front

Published in The House Magazine, Thursday 1st March

By Sam Macrory

Baroness Warsi tells Sam Macrory that in May’s local elections the coalition will be set aside as the Tories fight for every seat

Sayeeda Warsi is reading through a copy of Tom Watson’s interview in last week’s issue of The House Magazine. The Tory party chairman is not impressed, not least when Labour’s local elections campaign chief suggests that Boris Johnson is a “part-time mayor” with a second, well-paid, job.

“Oh my God, it’s the whole class war thing again,” exclaims Warsi, who is heading her party’s local campaigns. “If the best thing that Tom Watson can come up with is ‘it’s a class war’ – you know, Boris appeals to every class, every background, every race, every religion, every gender – his appeal is so broad. Boris is London.

Compare record to record, not record to pie-in-the-sky promises, anyone can make them. Boris has got a great record, and he’s an iconic guy for this great city in an amazing year.”
Warsi, who spent the day after we met phone-canvassing with Boris, describes his fight for the London mayoralty as “the big iconic election, which is run by Boris, his campaign, based on his record”, and is unimpressed by the Labour candidate.

“The prospect of the world descending on London in 2012 and us projecting to them Ken Livingstone as the face for Britain is enough incentive for me to get out of bed every morning and think this is the election we’ve got to fight. Labour have presented this kind of spent man of the past … it’s not just not good for the Conservatives, it’s not good for London, it’s not good for the country.”

She may be driven to defeat Ken, but Warsi’s attention is also focused on the 131 English councils – and more in Wales and Scotland – being contested on May 3. She accepts that the elections will be “predominantly focused on how did we deal with the budgetary cuts” and, recognising that challenge, Warsi quotes psephological experts Rawlings and Thrasher’s projection of 717 Labour gains and admits surprise to Watson’s prediction of 350.

“As political parties we will expectation-manage, but that is just so far below what they should be doing. When we last fought these elections in 2008… we were on 44 per cent in the polls, there or thereabouts, and Labour were on about 23/24 per cent. If you look at where those polls are now, on those predictions we would expect Labour to gain about 700-plus seats.”

The campaign, she says, will vary from council to council. “You can’t set a national message for local elections; local elections are about local records. Of course, it’s done on the backdrop of a difficult national climate and we’re going to feel that in the local elections, but in the end it’ll come down to how well we can actually deliver on the ground.”

With Warsi speaking at this weekend’s Tory spring forum, delegates will be pleased to hear that there is no suggestion of any pre-election pact with the Tories’ Lib Dem coalition partners.
“We’re not in coalition locally. We are two political parties and the everyday fighting of elections, by-elections, local elections, the referendum last year, I don’t think stalled because you’re in a national coalition dealing with national issues. Ultimately every election we fight builds on the last one we fought and eventually builds up to 2015. A few weeks ago we were out campaigning in Eastleigh [Chris Huhne’s constituency] and before that we were in Cumbria, in Tim Farron’s seat. I don’t stop campaigning.”

And while Warsi accepts that “all political parties are struggling with fundraising”, which she blames as much on the economic climate as the nature of mid-term elections, she insists that the Tory campaign team is “well run, efficient, lean… the biggest peacetime campaign force ever”.

The party’s record, she says, speaks for itself. “We’ve set the political strategy, we set the political message, and we stick to it. You can only judge somebody by how well the job’s done: [last year] we won the referendum and we gained 80 odd seats when we should have lost about 1000. So in that sense we’ve had huge successes in terms of elections. In difficult times we are ready for the battle”. On May 3, we can judge again.