Total Politics interview: Baroness Warsi: the campaign poster girl

Published in Total Politics, Thursday 23rd June 2011

by Amber Elliott

Her mother wanted her to dress like Margaret Thatcher when she first entered politics, but Baroness Warsi has never felt the need to imitate anyone. She has her own way of doing things, and they are having some success.

Heavy losses were expected at the local elections in May. Instead, the Conservative Party gained four councils and 85 new councillors.

Sayeeda Warsi, a politician who has never won a seat personally, was partly responsible for the results. She has only been in Parliament for six years, and co-chairman of the party for just one.

So, how does she feel about the local elections – excited, a little bit smug? “I don’t think smug’s the right word,” she says.

Gloating, then?

“No. Gloating isn’t the word.” She dismisses it without a smile.

We settle on “satisfied”.

Apparently, David Cameron has banned enthusiastic post-match hype. There’ll be no clink of champagne glasses. Only cautious, sombre election analysis. In public, at least.

In an interview just three months ago, Baroness Warsi predicted poor returns. “We will do badly in the local elections, and Labour should do very well because of where we are in the electoral cycle,” she said.

She laughs when I quote this back at her. “I wish I had the benefit of hindsight because I wouldn’t have said that,” she says. “I probably look a little bit stupid, having said we’d lose 1,000 seats and then going on to win 80-odd.”

We’re sitting in the Lord Chancellor’s offices in the House of Lords, in a room bedecked with Lord Irvine’s fuzzy Pugin wallpaper that famously cost the taxpayer £59,000.

Warsi looks a little fuzzy herself. She’s recovering from her national tour during the lead-up to the elections. “We literally have travelled the length and breadth of the country,” she says. “The last 30 days was something like 30 seats, 127 council seats, 1,000-odd councillors, 3,500 miles. It was constant. And, to be fair, we’ve been campaigning since about July of last year.”

Her party, she claims, can boast the largest peacetime campaign force ever. “When we restructured, we made sure that we cut our backroom. Frontline campaign services were protected.”

Warsi is a fast talker. She gallops through sentences, pausing only when her BlackBerry buzzes. There are five phones on our table. At one point, both she and her assistant are tapping at them with such concentration that I wonder if the interview has been abruptly terminated and I should leave. “Give me a second,” she says, cutting off a question to read something on the small screen.

In an effort to keep their attention, I canter through questions at a Warsi-esque pace. What was it like to follow Eric Pickles as party chairman? “Big shoes to fill,” Warsi chuckles. “Eric was such a larger-than-life figure – not just because he was larger-than-life, but because it’s a huge job to fit into.”

Warsi’s climb to the top of Mount Tory has been impressively swift. She was plucked from delegate obscurity by Oliver Letwin at the 2003 Conservative Party conference, and encouraged to stand at the 2005 general election as the Conservative candidate in Dewsbury. She was defeated, defying the national Conservative swing. That might have been the end of her political career had it not been for Michael Howard, who she credits as her “political mentor”.

“There’s no doubt that Oliver may have discovered me, but I would probably have just fought 2005 and then gone back to doing whatever I did. Michael Howard made it very clear that he wanted me to remain and get involved.”

Despite the poor and somewhat controversial result in Dewsbury, she was chosen as vice-chairman of the party later that year. Her appointment to the House of Lords in 2007 made her the upper chamber’s youngest member. She also became shadow minister for community cohesion at the same time.

Upon entering government in 2010, Warsi was selected as co-chairman of the Conservative Party (alongside Andrew Feldman) and minister without portfolio in the Cabinet Office, making her the first Muslim woman ever to serve as a minister.

“They keep coming up with these firsts, don’t they?” she says, rolling her eyes as though it’s dreadful.

Now as co-chairman of a party in government, she wants to “steer a steady ship”. “First of all, we have absolutely embedded this principle of ‘keeping the family together’,” she says. “It’s something Andrew and I came up with 12 months ago. It sounds twee, but it means that [with] the different strands of the Conservative Party – the professional party, the voluntary party and the parliamentary party – we set a vision that brings all those different strands together.”

Feldman is the ‘money man’. One person who worked closely with both chairmen says that Feldman deals with the donors because he’s closer to David Cameron, and they feel he has the inside track. Those inside the party claim that internal financing has been a top priority in this first year.

Warsi agrees that the party now “lives within its means”. “We are not spending anything that we’re not raising. We’re not taking out further loans. The party is in a good, stable, financial position.”

She has her own take on her relationship with Feldman: “When I first started this job, I said to Andrew, ‘Just imagine you’re at home.’ This is a complete joke, actually – his wife is an extremely successful woman – but I said, ‘You bring in the money and I spend it. And I think it will work really well.’”

Previously Feldman was chief executive of the party. “The role that he adopts now is built upon that. It’s more the organisation of the party, making sure the party’s well financed, making sure its structures are laid out right,” Warsi says. “I’m the political face of the party. So, more campaigning out in the regions, the media, the political message.” Insiders say that local associations like Warsi because she “talks pure Tory”. “Even crusty, old associations that were sceptical about her appointment are won over by her in person,” one says.

Feldman and Warsi have created new events called ‘Meet the Chairman’. “The initiative is a take on what David [Cameron] does now with PM Direct,” she explains. “It was important for the party to have access to us in an open way – to be able to walk in and ask us a question on anything. It’s a completely closed meeting. Twelve months on, having done dozens of these, it has never been leaked. I do most of them, but we do lots together; it’s a joint act.

“You have to try and balance the different aspects of your personality to fit the job,” she continues. “Instinctively I’m a campaigner, so I’d feel more at home with the fight in the run-up to the election. That’s probably why I was so involved and excited by the AV referendum and the local elections; they were an opportunity to get out there to campaign and fight.”

One colleague describes this style of politics as “attack dog”. “She’ll snarl and growl at the opposition to defend her home. But ultimately, she isn’t the master.” Some recent press releases put out in her name include: “Even Mandelson doesn’t know what Ed Miliband stands for”, “Stella Creasy’s comments are a cheap and irresponsible way to smear the big society” and “Labour created the jilted generation”. There is nothing subtle about them.

The AV referendum was a good example of Warsi’s tendency to jump into the political debate and sharpen her teeth on the bones of those who disagree with her. In a speech on the dangers of extremism, Warsi said: “[Yes to AV] may be sincere, and they may oppose extremism, but by backing AV, they’re backing a system that rewards extremism and gives oxygen to extremist groups… It means that bigots will be given more power in our politics.”

The speech was originally going to be delivered by Warsi on Cable Street alongside Labour’s Keith Vaz. One Labour ‘No to AV’ camp member says the idea of talking about the BNP in an area with such a history was “madness”. “We wouldn’t send one of our lot [Labour] out there to talk about extremism on Cable Street.” In the end, Warsi delivered the speech at Toynbee Hall under the guise of ‘Conservative No to AV’, rather than the separate ‘No to AV’ campaign, and without Keith Vaz.

The speech had a backlash. Chris Huhne accused Warsi of “gutter politics”, and went so far as to compare her to Goebbels.

She dismisses the name-calling as “a side show”. “For a politician called an ‘attack dog’, I didn’t feel the need to attack,” she shrugs. “I didn’t need to respond to it. To this day, I haven’t responded to it.”

But, surely, there were disagreements with the Lib Dems as a result of AV? “Nobody would have assumed that we’d have gone into this – even when the referendum was agreed as part of the coalition agreement – nobody would have said that this was going to create no disagreement or tension.” A double-negative (and a long-winded way of saying ‘yes’).

What of the speculation that David Cameron became involved in the ‘No to AV’ campaign only after George Osborne and others convinced him he must mount a strong opposition? “There was no question whatsoever that David wouldn’t get involved,” she replies. A second double-negative.
And what about the agreement that the PM would stand on the sidelines to give the Lib Dems a fighting chance at voting reform? “I don’t know, and I’d never comment on a discussion between David and Nick Clegg. Certainly, I was never present at one. But from a chairman’s perspective there was never any doubt in my mind that David wouldn’t play a part.”

Now that she’s finished her election-period tour, she is turning attention to internal party reforms. The party is driving hard on membership. “We’ve set an interesting target – five per cent of the Conservative vote on Conservative-held seats, and three per cent in Conservative non-held seats should be the level of membership. It’s quite ambitious, but we should be ambitious.” She later mentions that some associations are already above these five and three per cent targets. “A lot of them in Scotland are above the three per cent target. I think eight per cent of them are in Scotland.”

“The other thing I’m thinking about setting up is looking at the very serious concern of electoral fraud,” she says. “It’s something MPs and councillors have raised with me. I’ve had members of the Lib Dems raise it with me as well. MPs who fought their seats related to me real concerns about the level of electoral fraud that may have happened in their constituencies. In the end, around 80-82 official police complaints were made, and various investigations were done.”

She made similar accusations in the New Statesman in 2010, suggesting that the Conservatives were robbed of an overall majority by electoral fraud, but refused to be drawn at the time on the specific allegations.

Now, she wants to see if there’s anything the party can do, ‘campaign-wise’, to challenge electoral fraud. “It’s not something we should take lightly, or brush under the carpet. It should concern all of us, and we should work together in trying to counter it.”

Finally, Warsi wants to dedicate some time the party’s ‘look’ in 10 years’ time. “How will fundraising be done? What will be the priority of associations on the ground? How do we become an even slicker campaigning organisation?” she asks. “There are lots of great examples, countrywide, of where charities or mass memberships have reconfigured themselves. Without any preconceived thoughts, one of the things I’m wanting to commission in the next six months is a long look at where we want to be in a decade’s time, and what steps we need to take to go down that route.” I push for more detail on the future of the party, but am met with a closed door.

Many female politicians do not enjoy being judged on their appearance. Whether it’s Theresa May’s red shoes or Caroline Flint’s ‘window-dressing’, most female MPs are reluctant to be framed by their looks. Not so with Warsi. In fact, she enjoys it.

“I can claim, among many accolades, to be the sexiest member of the House of Lords,” she trills. Perhaps realising that this might be perceived badly, she adds: “My husband always says, ‘If you could see a school photo, you’d never have won.’”

She claims that she was “quite nerdy” at school. When asked what she would tell her sixteen-year-old self, she replies: “Get your eyebrows done.”

“My kids recently got hold of a school photo. They ordered one of those Moonpig cards, and they stuck it on the front. It’s on the mantelpiece – it’s really bad.”

Warsi seems unfazed about discussing her family. She’s hinted before that they have urged her to step away from the limelight, fearing that it makes her a high profile target. She admits: “My mum worries. She worries about how some of the things I say put me in harm’s way. She questions whether this is the job I should be doing. What she thinks is, ‘You get a lot of grief, you don’t see your family, you work long hours and you put yourself in danger. There must be a better thing to do out there than that’.”

What would she change about her political career so far if she could? There’s a long pause. “I wouldn’t change things, actually. Of course, there might be little things you’d do differently – ‘Oh, I really shouldn’t have said that, or actually, I don’t even believe in that any more’ – but that’s what makes you the person you are now. If I hadn’t done the good and the bad things before, I wouldn’t be where I am, doing what I am.” Her answer avoids admitting to a mistake.

And there have been mistakes. In her only attempt to be elected in 2005, she was accused of distributing homophobic literature. Later, she was quoted as saying that the British National Party had “some very legitimate views” on immigration. She has also had taken some difficult blows. A group of Muslims chucked eggs at her on a walk-about in Luton. And extremist Islamic preacher Anjem Choudary warned that she “does not represent Islam or anyone in this country who is a Muslim”.

It’s funny though – for a woman so willing to give her opinion on almost every subject – she is elusive when it comes to her own place in government. One journalist wrote: “It’s hard to escape the impression of Warsi wanting to have her cake and eat it. If she’s happy for her party to present her as the poster girl for the newly inclusive Conservatives, it seems a bit rich to object when anyone else talks about her in such terms.”

I ask about that specific interview. “I don’t think I was upset about what was said. I was just bored. I’ve been in politics now for a fair while, and the kind of interview questions about, you know, where you come from, what you do, how many times a day you pray, what you think of the face veil, of arranged marriages… It’s just boring. It’s been talked about so often. This is the point when my kids would turn around and say, ‘Yeah, whatever’.”

We talk about Muslim men and women who could be seen as role models. “They don’t have to be Muslim men and women. You meet lots of leaders, of all sorts, who you are inspired by. You meet ordinary people you’re inspired by, too.” Warsi is on the defensive.

I suggest that some of her reluctance to be drawn on ‘boring topics’ is linked to her being put on a pedestal when she arrived in Parliament. “And then knocked right back down again,” she says mirthfully. “That’s politics. I don’t think it was a pedestal. It was just intriguing. There are lots of straight-talking people in Yorkshire – maybe the southern commentariat thought that was different.”

Who are her political enemies? “Oh god. You tell me. You usually don’t know who they are, do you? Isn’t that true about politics?”

Warsi is called off to a division in the Lords. She returns 20 minutes later, distracted, tapping on her phone. What was the vote on? “I have no idea,” she shrugs. “I was so late. I was panicking. By the time I got there… I said to my whips, ‘Where should I be?’”

“She’s not well clued up on party history,” says one person who worked closely with the chairman. “Details are not her strong point.”

Warsi is an ‘immediate response’ woman. Her strengths are the fast political retort, the anti-Labour line and the adrenaline of campaigning. Colleagues describe her as “pushy” and “feisty”. But no one doubts her passion.

“This fight will not start with my birth and will not end with my death. I am a simple, black woman warrior, doing my bit, asking you if you’re doing yours.” Warsi recites her favourite quote.

Who wrote it, I ask? “It’s a poem by… somebody… god, I’ve forgotten.” Ah well. Details. The baroness is a bigger picture politician.