(Photo: Daily Mirror)
Though it is easy to dismiss any big Westminster story during the silly season as overblown, one cannot deny the fact that Baroness Warsi becoming the first minister, and the first of this government, to resign over a point of principle is a big deal.
A leading figure of Cameron’s all-inclusive detoxification strategy (how distant those days seem), Warsi has seen her star wane in recent years as a result of expenses scandals, tales of incompetence and personality clashes. (The brash, blunt, Northern girl done good was never going to work well with those posh southern boys for whom criticism is just white noise.) The fact that she was demoted in 2012 and lumbered with some made-up, tokenistic brief, straddling both the Foreign Office and Communities brief– indeed, calling her the Minister for Muslims may have been more appropriate – has in fact been used by Tories in an attempt to diminish the power of her resignation, saying she jumped before she was pushed.
Whilst I have no doubt that Warsi’s motivations were at least partly self-interested and politically motivated – not to say that her disagreement with the government’s stance is disingenuous – her letter neatly paints her as part of the Tory conscience. Her reference to Grieve, Hague and Clarke as missed voices in recent Cabinet discussion elevates her concerns from individual and self-serving, to those of a nobler class of Tory, notable for their more liberal tendencies. Furthermore, her letter highlights the ideological shift in the Cabinet, following the reshuffle. It is true that the public is broadly moving to the right on human rights issues (notably, immigration and the EU) but the new Cabinet, and hawkish Hammond in particular, has let public opinion on Gaza become a blind spot. Fundamentally, Cameron and Hammond don’t seem to realise or care how bad their silence over Gaza looks. With Miliband, Clegg and Ban Ki Moon toughening up their rhetoric on Israel, Cameron is starting to look pretty lonely in refusing to condemn Israel’s action, with only the equally feeble-looking Obama for company.
There must be a time when cynicism and petty politicking is put aside; a time when facts and principles must prevail: what Israel has done in this recent conflict is contemptible and callous, inexcusable and unjust. Over 1,800 Gazans have died in this recent conflict and about half a million have been displaced. What we are witnessing is a man-made humanitarian crisis and we in the West are standing on the sidelines hoping no one will ask difficult questions. The time for empty rhetoric is plainly over and action, in the form of arms embargoes and sanctions, must be taken on an international level, with the UK at the heart. In the words of Jon Stewart in his infinite, satirical and sage-like wisdom, we can’t be Israel’s rehab sponsor and drug dealer.
From a domestic point of view, although Warsi’s comments could be easily brushed off given the negative briefing she’s received in recent years, hers is the most high profile voice in the chorus of dissent now emerging in the Tory ranks. Margot James, William Hague’s PPS, and Sarah Wollaston, Health Select Committee chair, have also publicly shared their unease with the Conservatives’ position on Gaza. The fact that they’re all women isn’t in itself notable but certainly Wollaston was not the Tories’ preferred choice for Health Select Committee chair and does have a reputation for breaking ranks on issues importance to her. Margot James isn’t known for being a rebel though the fact that she’s a rising female star (and ticks the LGBT box) and yet was overlooked for a promotion during the reshuffle is intriguing. Perhaps her Tory-lite politics was thought too out of step with the growing Osbornite, Neocon consensus at the top. Indeed, their public break from the party line suggests that Rafael Behr is spot on about Cameron not listening to what he doesn’t want to hear.
Ultimately ministers come and go and no one, neither Tories nor anyone with liberal or progressive views, will be sad to see her go. However, in going Sayeeda Warsi has shone a spotlight on divisions over foreign policy in the Cabinet (not, crucially, along Coalition fault lines) and increased pressure on Cameron to take a tougher stance on Israel. Indeed, one could almost say that Warsi’s departure has been her most significant contribution to British politics. Principled or not, it’s certainly clear that Sayeeda Warsi has made a point.