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Friday 9th March 2012 | 18:08
Sayeeda Warsi has given an in-depth interview to The House magazine. And given all the noises off at the 1922 Committee this week (when some backbenchers gave her a hard time over candidate selection) it's perfectly timed too.
You can read the full feature HERE.
The Baroness has an infectious enthusiasm for her job and is clearly well liked by The Boss. She was kind enough to give myself and Sam Macrory enough time to find out what really makes her tick.
In a move that may upset a few Lib Dems ahead of their weekend conference, the Tory co-chairman says her party will 'fight hard and fight to win' in any Eastleigh by-election. She also claims the Lib Dems are not 'dug in' there and reveals she has campaigned in the seat recently. Intriguingly, she drops a hint that Chris Huhne may quit regardless of what happens in court and attacks the Lib Dems for not being team players.
With some unrest among Tory ranks, Baroness Warsi also explains that MPs are not happy with 'communication' by the party and reveals how Eric Ollerenshaw and Michael Fabricant act as her eyes and ears in the Commons.
A moderniser to her fingertips, she talks about her mission to get more non-white votes for the Conservatives and how to keep talented women (she's just upped the party staff maternity pay from statutory minimum to full pay for 6 months). But she is just as keen on getting fellow Northerners into the party too.
Waris also explains why she is vehemently against positive discrimination: "I get enough grief even in my position to say ‘Well she’s only doing what she’s doing because she’s black’. It’s not a nice thing to have to fight, even when you know its not true."
Yet to me the most interesting quotes were the personal ones. She hints at her mother's disappointment with her career and family choices; reveals she doesn't pray five times a day but does observe Ramadan; describes British racism as 'more subtle' than 'Paki bashing'; reveals she would prefer a cookery show to standing for election; explains about how she juggles family and work thanks to her 'reslient' kids.
But as if to underline just how controversial her co-chairmanship of the party is in some eyes, Cathy Newman also relates in her column in The House this week just how upset some activists are with the adoption of Ivan Massow on the candidates' list.
Cathy has a Cantona-esque quote from Stephen Parker, of Hitchin Conservatives:
“The Conservative membership is becoming weary of selling second-rate knickers at third rate jumble sales to support a fourth-rate hierarchy....You don’t build up a party by removing the people who wish to serve it, not where I come from. Maybe you do in Warsi-land.”
It's a packed magazine this week. We also have interviews with Eric Pickles (see HERE for his thoughts on teaching English in schools and on his favourite Indian restaurants) and Andrew Stunnell (see HERE on why the Lib Dems won't be as hard hit in May's elections).
If you want to subscribe to The House, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. It's rapidly becoming unmissable.
Anyway, we didn't have enough space in the magazine for the full interview. So here's Baroness Warsi's quotes, subject by subject:
On Eastleigh and Chris Huhne:
“It is a target seat and I think we would fight it hard and we would fight it to win. I don’t think the Lib Dems are dug in there. It’s winnable. We will do everything we can to win it. The fact that I was out campaigning in Eastleigh - I did an event there for members [recently] - means it is certainly a seat that we would fight”
“The party is ready for any by-election at any time. When a by-election is called in Eastleigh then of course we will kick in to action. You’d expect political parties to keep an eye on those seats where there is a potential of a by-election, but… there’s a process in place, there’s a court hearing and a trial, we don’t know how long that’s going to take and we don’t know what the outcome of it is going to be… [but] if a by-election is called in Eastleigh then yeah, the party will be ready to cope.”
“I think the backdrop of how that election is called… it depends on what the outcome of the case is. The by-election could be called because, you know, Chris might stand down irrespective of what happens at the court case.”
On the Lib Dem sniping and Coalition:
“Politics is always there in the background, but sniping for the sake of sniping and opportunism…doesn’t go down well. It’s not good for team spirit: you’re either in it or you’re not in it, and if you’re in it you can’t be half way in it or you can’t say ‘I’m going to be in for the bits that I like and then not choose the bits that I won’t. Brits don’t like foul play.
“We are the bigger and the stronger party in the coalition and therefore, to some extent, we bear the bigger responsibility to keep the coalition together. I also think that as a party, you know, we’re better than that. We can scream until we’re blue in the face about who did which bit of it but it is a joint record which we will take to the country - but what the country will also assess us on is how we behaved during that time when we were in coalition. The British people do not like bad team players, and ultimately I would rather be a good team player than a bad team player. Or I’d leave the team.”
On her message to the Tory backbenches on the Coalition:
“I come from the commercial world, you know we sign on it, we seal on it, we deliver on it. That’s the way that that it’s done. And I would say to my backbenchers that it’s not just backbenchers, there are many front benchers, there are many people in Cabinet who sometimes would like to say “you know what, I’m not entirely happy with that’. But we say ‘this is something we’ve signed up to and what we’re trying to do, the bigger picture, is so important that actually I’m going to see this through’.”
On the problems of being a peer and a party chairman:
“It is an issue. It’s an issue and an advantage I suppose, there’s two sides to it. I know when I go through the lobbies [in the Lords], I get constantly stopped by lots of colleagues and I give them updates on this and that. Yesterday I was talking to Andrew Lloyd Webber and then we went off, had a cup of tea, and he was talking to me about Jesus Christ Superstar because he’s doing a big new production. And then I managed to kind of persuade him to do a couple of party events, fundraisers for me, which I was quite pleased about. So it’s great because you do a lot of business in the lobbies.
“It means you miss out in the business in terms of the Commons, but you have to therefore think what are the other forums which I can therefore be in touch with my colleagues? “
On her contacts with Tory backbenchers:
“I’ve got a great PPS, Eric Ollerenshaw who is under instruction to be in the bars every night which he kind of fulfils…Eric Ollerenshaw can take his drink.
“But he’s there, he’s very well linked in, he’s been in the party forever. He’s great, and he’s got a great bunch of friends. Then the whip that I attach myself to through the Commons, is Michael Fabricant, and Michael is the kind of supplier of all information that is ever need by any chairman ever…. He will give me loads and loads of information and then I do backbencher lunches and teas every week.
“So we do themed ones and we do open ones, so I’ve been doing these for about two months, and you know the amazing thing about them is they’ve never been leaked. Never briefed, never tweeted, and they are so frank, and we do everything from kind of….. I’ll talk to them about what’s coming up in government and they’ll give me feedback. "
On what Tory backbenchers complaints:
“I think you get individual areas, you get people who are interested in say Europe, interested in health, and so they’ll come up with individual subject matter. But if I was to say what is the one big thing they complain about consistently and that is communication. They will always say to us.. “look you’ve done this amazing stuff in government, it’s not communicated out. We’re not hearing it properly'.
“If I had to choose a government I’d rather choose a doing government than a telling government but I think we need to get better at that communication because ultimately you know your members of Parliament are on the front line who are then going to have to sell all of these issues.
“And in terms of the party I think, you know the party communication is now much much better, you know, the emails that go out, the kind of, I send out a newsletter which is kind of a quick overview of where we’ve been, we send them out daily stuff, daily bulletins, daily information, daily lines to take, research, I’ve taken CCHQ to Parliament and I’ve done sessions there, we’ve taken them in to the regions and we’ve done sessions there. I’ve encouraged them to bring a lot more of their supporters and big donors from their constituencies here, because we obviously don’t entertain them on the parliamentary estate now. So I think they feel much more involved through that kind of stuff. And then a lot of the 2010 were guys who were candidates in 2005 so they’re kind of people I went through the training sessions with and then came out and fought elections with – they’re people I’ve known for a while.”
On why the rubber chicken circuit is now the ‘mushroom risotto’ circuit:
“I’m in their constituencies. I mean I spend more time running up and down the country in constituencies – we do anything from between 8 to 12 constituencies a week so in that sense you know you get around you get to see them, you do dinners, you do teas. You campaign with them. There’s a lot of mushroom risotto – I’m vegetarian. Mushroom is the new vegetarian – you know it used to be pasta with a tin of tomatoes, it’s now mushroom risotto.
“So, I get to see them when we’re on the stump, effectively, and then through here they’ll send me loads of letters from their constituents which we reply to and then you know coffee rooms and just wandering around Parliament, in Portcullis House, in Despatch Box café. You can sit there and have a million surgeries in two hours.”
On why the Tories need more non-white votes:
“One of the big things we absolute have to win on, all the empirical data shows, is non-white voters. It’s an area when traditionally the Conservative Party haven’t done well. If you look at the last elections every independent research shows that we didn’t pick up, we were in the high teens, early twenties, even mid twenties were the best that we did with some of the communities where the Labour party are still in the 50s and 60s and winning the percentage votes in these communities.
“But you can’t have just somebody like me saying that. It has to be absolutely embedded in our culture, our Conservative Research Department, our press office, our business relations office, our campaigning department all have to understand the importance of this and the relevance of this and the way to achieve it. I think for me it’s not just about having women and black people as Members of Parliament and therefore you’ve got people who you can show up front - which is important – but it’s also about changing everything that goes below that.”
On her mother’s disapproval:
“My mum wanted me to be a lawyer and she chose my husband [for an arranged marriage]. And I’m now divorced and remarried and a politician: so you can read from that what you want.”
On herself as a Muslim:
Do her staff timetable her day to include the traditional five daily prayers of Islam?
“You’re going to get me into real trouble now aren’t you! There’s no right answer to this is there? This is what William Hague calls a pincer question! If I tell you that I don’t pray 5 times a day my mother is going to be furious. If I tell you I do pray 5 times a day then that would not the truth.”
She stresses that her staff are culturally aware, however, and her assistant has become an expert in where to buy a jilbab on the Edgware Road at short notice. “My staff know not to buy me a sandwich from Pret because I eat kosher, my staff know that when we go out for a drink they always order me an orange juice because I don’t drink. My staff know during the month of fasting when I do try and fast, that I’m pretty whacked.”
“I went for Haj, for where I perform the pilgrimage last year, which is amazing to have a British Cabinet Minister performing Haj, you know there’s the whole world’s leaders, kings, presidents, and Prime Ministers descend on this one place at the same time and perform this pilgrimage together,. You know it really is like an alternative UN! To be there for the first time to be representing the UK and to be doing that as part of a spiritual journey is real privilege.”
On racism in Britain:
“I think overt racism is not prevalent in Britain anymore, the kind of stuff we got when we were at school which was crudely called Paki-bashing, it doesn’t happen in that sense. It’s much more subtle than that and I’m not sure that I actually have the time to do anything but work these days so I don’t actually get the opportunity to put myself in a position where I might actually get someone to be quite nasty. I’ve been down the cells at two in the morning when people are shouting racist, it’s really not going to, I’m not going to be phased by it!
“I wish I had the time to kind of have time off so I could notice if people were being racist. I’m sure it still happens, I’m convinced it still happens but in terms of the kind of level at which we work now and the intensity at which we work you get very little time off.”
On positive discrimination and quotas:
“You know look I get enough grief even in my position to say ‘Well she’s only doing what she’s doing because she’s black’. It’s not a nice thing to have to fight, even when you know its not true. It would be even worse if you’d done it off the back of a shortlist. For people like me who’d had to fight their way, every step of the way, it would just be awful to think that when you’d got to that final hurdle you got there because someone turned around and thought well actually lets fill some sort of quota here.”
On the A-list:
“I got rid of it! It’s the first thing I did when I came in. I think what we did well, I think what worked most effectively was making sure that the final list that went before an Association was 50:50 male and female. Who they chose was a matter for them but actually everyone was given a 50:50.”
On the need for more diversity among MPs:
“I think we’ve made steps in the right direction, we had two black/brown, ethnic minority MPs in 2009, we’ve now got 11, which is a huge percentage increase. We’ve done a lot better with women; we’ve done a lot better with Northerners. Because I don’t think this is just about black/white, female/male. Sometimes, for me, actually making sure that, as I call it ‘the Northern mafia’, is as strong in the party as anywhere else, is important. For me it’s important. My team is 70% female and about 80% Northern!”
On changing the culture at CCHQ to make it more pro-women:
“It about simple things like, I’ve been speaking to HR, when I had my little one I was running my own business, the advantage of having my own business was that she could run around the office when she wanted to. From a very young age, even though she was at nursery, I’d pick her up from nursery and if I was working late, as long as you gave her some toys she kept herself occupied. Kids are so resilient in that sense.
“And I said you know how can we be more child-friendly? You know when I look across the office 40 per cent plus of the workforce here is female. But how many of them are of ‘child-having’ age and how many of them are thinking about leaving and having children and think they can come back to this? So we’ve just, actually a couple of weeks ago changed the provision to increase full pay for 6 months when you go off to have a baby. I think it was not far off the statutory maternity payment. And that’s a bold proposal, for someone to go away and come back to their job and that’s the kind of culture change you embed.”
On the need to get more working class Tories:
The party is also running internships focusing on youngsters on free school meals, “Rather than ‘oh we’ll have some black people in or we’ll have some women in’, it’s actually about people who wouldn’t normally think about walking through the doors of the Conservative Office.”
On juggling family life and her career:
“The kids are really good. We had our kids when we were really young. It’s an advantage that. We worked out my husband and I, my husband is 41 and I’m 40 and we are going to be empty nesters at 46. To be an empty-nester at 46 is pretty remarkable. We had all the hassle at the beginning which means we’ve now kinda of come out the other end.
“I can go home and the shopping’s done because the eldest one drives and has got a car so he’ll have gone to the supermarket. They’ll all have gone in the kitchen, they’ll all have got my love of cooking so they’ll have cooked up something and I think because you’re not there kids are kind of quite resilient. I think if you are there every day they expect you constantly to set the boundaries, whereas if you are not there every day you set the boundary and they just don’t break the rules.”
On whether she should run for election again?
“If you asked this question of Michael Howard he’d say yes, if you asked this of Francis Maude he’d say yes, there’s a whole load of colleagues who I’ve worked very closely with in the past who keep saying to me: ‘you should never be in the Lords you should be in the Commons.’
“Do I believe that? I think for the first six months…you go into the House of Lords at 36, the average age is 68, you end up on the front bench, you’ve spent most of your life as a lawyer stood up in court, you are quite adversarial in the way you approach things, and you kind of think am I in the wrong place? This is really genteel, quite nice, and people are so deeply intelligent and experienced, and bring masses to the table. I am 36 and i just don’t know… you know feel that I’ve earned the right to be here along with everybody else here who’ve done amazingly wonderful things. It’s a privilege, but I think for the first six months when I joined the House of Lords I did go through that phase.”
On the freedom of not being elected:
“I think now what I find more and more is that there are some really difficult issues which I’ve been involved in and I’ve chosen to be involved in over the last four, five years. I think it’s been easier to do that not feeling that I’ve got to I suppose in the past, you know, I think I’ve a bigger sense of freedom to be able to deal with some of the challenging issues and not feel that every one of them has to be kind of seen through the lens of a focus group or an electorate before I’ve raised it. I think it’s made me much more front footed about the things that matter. And theMminister without Portfolio job had given me this wide kind of freedom to be able to develop some of the things that interest me, excite me, where I feel that I can add something.”
On life after the Lords:
“I just want my cookery show, and I just might leave politics. I love cooking. I just think it would be so great to kind of bring some of those fantastic, traditional recipes… I’m a huge cook and I love Come Dine with Me. My favourite things are yoghurt chilli chicken and slow roasted lamb with almonds and cashew nuts and yoghurt. It’s meat to die for, it just comes off the bone, four hours. It’s just brilliant.”
On meeting the Pope and British ‘identity’:
“It’s just a great meeting, a great backdrop to what we had to say. Owen [Paterson] was telling me we had a kind of interesting feedback from the Catholic community in Northern Ireland who are now saying…that it is good to be Catholic and a Unionist. He said ‘the debate is shifting significantly and they referred to your speech [her attack on ‘aggressive secularism’]’. It goes back to the debate, ‘Why can’t you be Muslim and British?’,’Why can’t you be Catholic and Unionist?’ Why do identities have to constantly conflict?”
On House of Lords reform:
“It’s not something that I see as a huge priority. When I go round the country, and I’m round the country every Thursday and every Friday so I go around it more than most, I don’t knock on the door and people don’t open the door and say ‘let me talk to you about house of lords reform.’ I don’t think it’s the thing that plays on peoples minds. Its not real politics, and in that sense you know do I see it as a priority right now, personally I don’t.”
On being the PM’s ‘envoy’ in places like Kazakhstan:
“The Minister without portfolio role is quite interesting because it’s what I call Prime Ministerial special projects and things that interest and excite and I can add value to. For example, David’s asked me to take a keen interest in Central Asia, he thinks we need to build that relationship. It’s a place which is going to become more and more significant for a whole series of reasons, not least because actually we are going to have to drawn down from Afghanistan in a couple of years’ time, we are going to have to bring our hardware and our people back - both over land and overflight. It’s an interesting and intriguing area because they are culturally Russian but religiously Muslim.
“I think they’ve always been quite intrigued when they’ve met me. When we went to Astana..I met the Foreign Minister and he said to me, ‘Ah I see from your background that your parents originate from Pakistan and he said I must tell you minister that the pilau rice and the samosa originate from Kazakhstan’. And I said ‘that’s really interesting your Excellency, that means that I’m a very good Kazakh cook’. I think there was quite an interest in diplomatic circles that what would have been quite a staged almost Russian-like monologue in these meetings suddenly it’s just disarming. That’s probably the only way I can describe it."
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