Warsi’s walk out highlights Tory tensions over Gaza

(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.


Time to take domestic violence seriously

David Ruffley: the shopping trip that provided Tory with new bedroom at your expense

Every time a high profile case of violence against women and girls (VAWG) emerges, whether rape, child abuse or FGM, well-meaning and determined words are spoken by all the right people about transparency, about lessons learned, offering a glimmer of hope to victims. Yet every time, those who suffer most through such violence are let down by an institution whose values prove to be as ancient as the building in which it is housed.

The idea that David Ruffley MP could be re-selected to stand for election next year, having accepted a caution for assaulting his partner, is hideous and is made even worse by the fact that his assault has only recently been brought to light, four months after taking place. Domestic violence has long been seen as a “private issue” and it appears that Westminster has not shed those outdated beliefs, initially stating that the matter had been dealt with by the police. Sweeping domestic violence under the carpet in this way only serves to belittle and undermine the seriousness of the crime. A crime that, in the UK, leaves two women dead each week.

Gender-based violence of any kind is not an issue to get party political over but the past five years under the Coalition has seen provision of domestic violence services shrink across the country, decimated by cuts; rapists are treated with sympathy by the judiciary; refugees, detained for an indeterminate period, are reportedly sexually assaulted in Yarl’s Wood. This week also saw the Prime Minister and Home Secretary make huge leaps and bounds in legislating to combat FGM and I sincerely applaud them for this. However, these efforts appear token when laid against the devastating cuts to vital services for domestic violence victims and when the governing party boasts a perpetrator of such violence among their ranks. One in three women in the world experience gender-based violence in their lifetime. How can they feel that their suffering is taken seriously when Parliament turns a blind eye to the crimes of one of its own?

David Ruffley has apologised, publicly and in private to his ex-partner, but this attrition can only be taken seriously if matched by an understanding that such behaviour is incompatible with being a MP. I therefore hope that Mr Ruffley faces up to the consequences of his actions and resigns as a MP, however the fact that he chose not to address any question over his role in public life during his apology makes this rather unlikely. The recent leaked comments by the Chairman of Ruffley’s local Conservative Association, saying that the incident was not domestic violence and that reports have been exaggerated by “minority feminist groups”, suggests that he’s not going to be de-selected any time soon either. One can only hope therefore, with a dash of cynicism, that if pressure mounts, Cameron and Gove may be forced to take disciplinary action and suspend him. Cameron is known for his displeasure in being pressured into such action by the press, as his hesitation over Maria Miller and Andrew Mitchell illustrates, though Ruffley may yet prove expendable. His lowly status as a backbencher may be his undoing, as might his previous support for Cameron’s one-time rival David Davis (Cameron’s memory is said to be elephantine on such matters.)

However the issue extends far beyond Mr Ruffley. The government is said to be considering a domestic violence law to allow sentences to take into account separate incidents of threats, violence and coercion as a sustained campaign of terror. As others, such as Caroline Criado-Perez, have argued the current system is a legal blackhole which leaves victims vulnerable and their fears disregarded. This government, and successive governments to come, need consistency on VAWG to address a rampant culture of misogyny. Introducing a domestic violence law and showing zero tolerance on abusive MPs could be a much needed start.

If you would like to sign the petition calling for David Ruffley  to resign from Parliament then please click here.

Reshuffle digested: Cameron in retreat and Osborne in ascent

David Cameron and George Osborne in the House of Commons (Photo: PA)

So out with the old, in with the new? Not quite. Cameron, above all else, is a political animal, driven by pragmatism and ambition. So, whilst it did come as a shock that his pal Gove was demoted to Chief Whip Hand of the King (a worrying insight into Cameron’s mind if there ever was one), you can’t deny the pragmatism in benching the most hated part of the government less than a year before an election.

Indeed, the decision to put Education in Nicky Morgan’s hands, rather than the more obvious choice of former Education junior minister Liz Truss, suggests that Cameron (or rather, Lynton Crosby) knows that Gove’s reforms are not a winner with the electorate and that picking fights with teachers, as Gove and Truss are both wont to do, is not smart politics when campaigning is about to start. Although there’s no indication of backtracking on Gove’s reforms, the need to parachute a caretaker minister to soothe the NUT’s rage and quell the bad press can be viewed as an admission of failure of the education reforms, similar to Hunt’s move to Health after Andrew Lansley’s hideously awful Health and Social Care Act had already passed.The other big reformer of Cameron’s government, Iain Duncan Smith, lives to fight another day but given the gross stagnation of Universal Credit plans and Osborne’s disdain towards him, one can only view his survival as a weak attempt to not seem to completely throw in the towel. In fact, the transparency of Cameron’s cynical ploy makes the move look rather desperate.

Clearly Cameron has put the business of government on the backburner and is going all guns blazing into campaigning. The feminist in me is always happy to see more women in positions of power but I would be more enthused were it not for the fact that the women have been brought in when’s there’s nothing for them to do. The Tories have run out of policies for this term and if they did manage to get into government for a second term it is highly likely that there would be another reshuffle, restoring Gove to his Education fiefdom. For now, all Cameron wants from his oestrogen-fuelled Cabinet is to appear on TV, stay well clear of controversy and brim with competency. Beyond the abilities of many in Parliament, I’m sure, but hardly a win for the sisterhood is it? Presentation is an inevitable part of politics but No 10’s briefing about the “reshuffle for women” was so demonstrably patronising, turning the promotion of women into one big “calm down, dear” to his critics, that it could have only come from the mind of someone who has no idea what true equality and representation looks like.

Whilst the reshuffle exposed Cameron as on the back foot, weakly giving in to criticisms over his overly male, Etonian Cabinet and sacking his friend and lead reformer, Osborne is arguably the biggest winner of this reshuffle. Many of the new entries into the Cabinet, such as Nicky Morgan, Priti Patel and Matthew Hancock (along with Sajid Javid, having been promoted earlier this year) are Osborne’s former acolytes from the Treasury. They mark not only a generational shift amongst Conservatives but also an ideological one, having been raised on Thatcherism and, along with Osborne, being fervently right-wing in their love of the free-market in a way that Cameron never has been.

Osborne is clearly laying the groundwork for a leadership bid for whenever Cameron gets shunted out. Gove may be put out by his demotion but undoubtedly Osborne is aware of how useful having an ally in the Whip’s office will be when the time comes to gather parliamentary support to become leader. Indeed, the promotion of his allies, along with the briefing that he fancies a spell at the Foreign Office once the election’s over, clearly paves the way for Osborne, world statesman and Prime Minister in the making. God help us all…

Harriet and Labour’s own “woman problem”

POLITICS Harman 183331

The treatment of Harriet Harman these past days, as with that of her whole political career, by the political and media establishment only serves to underscore her point: women in politics cannot reach the top without vehement misogynistic ridicule. Even before Harman had delivered her speech the knives were already out. Outraged at her criticism of his old boss, McBride rushed to attack Harman’s speech as “bilge”, without engaging with her main point about representation in whatsoever.

Now, of course it’s obvious to anyone why Ms Harman is bringing this up and in public no less: she wants to be Deputy PM. Indeed, she practically said as much on Newsnight. However, there are two issues here:
a) Personal motivation does not make it impossible for her to be genuinely concerned with representation and sexism in politics
b) If she is just trying to jockey for power in government, well, WHAT ELSE DO YOU EXPECT?

Harriet Harman has been a senior figure in politics for decades, and is currently the longest serving female MP in the Commons so the idea that she shouldn’t be ambitious is preposterous. Naked ambition in senior male politicians, such as Boris Johnson, is expected and does nothing to dampen their chances to gaining power. Conversely, women like Harman is ridiculed and reprimanded for being so shameless. Ambition is apparently unbecoming for a woman. We’re meant to sit quietly in the corner and be asked to join in by gallant and generous men, not demand our place at the table and shout when we’re ignored.

Even if McBride is honest when he says that Brown wouldn’t have made anyone Deputy PM, her point still stands. Can you imagine Alan Johnson or Jon Cruddas accepting that they wouldn’t become Deputy PM like Prescott? Does anyone think that serious concessions wouldn’t have been made if that was the case – a good Cabinet position perhaps? Or are women just expected to want less and be grateful for it?

Of course there is the McBride argument that women like Harman aren’t promoted or take seriously because they’re useless, however such an argument would be more compelling were it not for the legions of useless men at the top of every bastion of power (Jeremy Hunt, Paul Flowers and the lovely but ineffectual Tristram Hunt to name but a few). Given their sheer numbers one can only presume that female under-representation has more to do with sexism inherent in a “chumocracy”.

One could argue that Harman should be savvy enough to lobby for the Deputy PM role in private, rather than run to the media but surely that would to assume that she hasn’t made her feelings clear in private before, which we know not to be the case.

Ultimately Harman’s move may have not earned her any more friends in Westminster but it does mean that Miliband may have to park his plan to abolish the Deputy PM role and make room for Harman (or indeed Clegg in the likelihood of a Coalition – where that would leave Harman is another question entirely). Once again it seems that women have to force themselves through the corridors of power and risk chastisement and ridicule for it, or spend their careers overlooked and under-valued. Labour is right to criticise Cameron over his pitiful lack of women in Cabinet but to show that the Shadow Cabinet’s diversity isn’t just for appearances Miliband has to take a look at Labour’s own back room and answer some serious questions about the role senior Labour women have to play in the election campaign.