Warsi resigns over Gaza policy

Warsi resigns over Gaza policy
Resignation is a blow to Cameron's government and evidence of rift over UK Middle East policy
5 min read
05 August, 2014
Baroness Warsi leaving Downing Street

The resignation of Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim woman in the British cabinet, over the government's policy on the conflict in Gaza, marks yet another milestone in the career of the outspoken former Conservative party chair that has often been marked by controversy.


It also comes as a blow to Prime Minister David Cameron's attempts to present a more diverse and representative Conservative Party ahead of the 2015 general election.


Baroness Warsi, who was a senior minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), tweeted the first public mention of her resignation on Tuesday morning, saying she could “no longer support government policy on Gaza”.


Her resignation letter went into further detail, describing the government's position on Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip as “morally indefensible” and “not in Britain's national interest”.


     “She wasn't just there because she's a Muslim female” - former Foreign Office official

As the minister responsible for relations with the International Criminal Court (ICC), she said she could not accept that the government opposed the ICC being involved in the case. The Palestinian Authority is mulling taking Israel to the ICC but has met resistance to such a move in the past from both the US and UK.


“I've spent the last two and a half years helping to promote, support and fund the ICC. I felt I could not reconcile this with our continued pressure on the Palestinian leadership not to turn to the ICC to seek justice,” she said in an interview on Tuesday with Huffington Post UK following her resignation.


She also implicitly criticised the new foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, comparing him unfavourably to his predecessorm William Hague. Hammond, who was only promoted to the role in early July, has said Israel was undermining its support in the West with its actions in Gaza. But he also argued in a BBC interview that applying the word “disproportionate” to Israel’s actions was “emotive” - even as he referred to Hamas tunnels under Gaza as “attack tunnels”, mirroring Israeli discourse.


Warsi's resignation comes at a time of growing criticism within the British establishment over Israel's actions in Gaza. Ed Miliband, head of the opposition Labour Party, has accused Cameron of being silent “on the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians”. Former Conservative Defence Minister Nicholas Soames also weighed in, saying: “The time has come for Great Britain to tell Israel that the bombardment of Gaza and the subjugation of the Palestinian people must stop.”


Popular sentiment has also been enflamed, with tens of thousands taking to the streets across the country to protest the Israeli military assault. A YouGov poll released on 28 July found that 62 percent of Britons thought Israel guilty of war crimes.


UK Muslims have been vocal in condemning the Israeli assault, and, as a prominent Muslim as well as in her role as Minister for Faith and Communities, Warsi will have been strongly exposed to this anger. Having had past run-ins with some British Muslims over her support for the war in Afghanistan – she was pelted with eggs on a trip to Luton in 2009 – her stance on Gaza will likely be welcomed by many among Britain’s nearly three million Muslims.


More worryingly for the ruling Conservative Party, Warsi's resignation highlights the government's policy on Gaza, and may drive more Muslims away from voting for them. Although Muslims only number around five percent of the UK's population, the “Muslim vote” is growing in importance electorally and particularly in some marginal seats across the country.


Of Pakistani origin, but born and raised in Yorkshire, Warsi has broken down barriers in a party still seen as largely dominated by white, upper-class men. Warsi was not only the first Muslim chair of the Conservative Party, but also the first woman to hold the position. And although she failed to win a seat in the House of Commons in the 2005 election, David Cameron valued her enough to make her a life peer, and she became the youngest member of the House of Lords. In 2010, she was appointed to the cabinet, marking a remarkable rise within the party leadership.


It was a rapid ascent that sparked murmurs among rival conservatives, and in the wake of her resignation, suggestions that her background was largely responsible for her prominence were raised yet again. Douglas Murray, writing online for the right-wing Spectator magazine, described her as “the most over-promoted, incapable and incompetent minister of recent times”. Cameron had been looking for a token female Muslim, Murray wrote, and “grabbed the first one he could see”.


However, a former FCO official who worked with Warsi said that, although she did “tick a lot of boxes”, she was also “a strong personality”.


“She wasn't just there because she's a Muslim female,” the former official, who did not wish to be named, added.


Warsi largely followed the party line in public, though she is also known to have had deep reservations over the government policy on the Middle East. The former Foreign Office official suggested Warsi might have tendered her resignation over Syria had parliament not defeated the government’s push for military intervention in September last year.

     Islamophobia has “passed the dinner table test” and become socially acceptable in the UK - Warsi


Warsi has also been no stranger to controversy. In 2011, she made a famous speech where she said that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner table test” and become socially acceptable in the UK.


The issue continued to hold importance to Warsi, and after the murder of Saudi student Nahid al-Manea in June, vowed to fight Islamophobia, which she described as a “new form of hate crime”.


She also appeared on national television in March holding up a spoof newspaper criticising the large number of people in Cameron's cabinet from the upper classes. Warsi did not back down and said she was making a point about social mobility.


In resigning over Gaza, the first minister under Cameron to resign over a matter of political principle, Warsi has again proven that she does not shy away from making contentious decisions. Her move is embarrassing for the Conservatives, but does not take away from her being an asset to the party in its attempts to present itself as reflective of modern British society.


The resignation also showcases how deep feelings have run in the UK over the assault on Gaza, and the British government’s largely muted criticism of Israel in the wake of more than 1,800 Gazan deaths.