Insight Public Affairs: Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

An interesting, opinionated and controversial figure in the corridors of Westminster, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi often divides opinion, among her own colleagues and opposition MPs and peers alike.

Undoubtedly talented, Warsi was awarded a life peerage by Cameron in 2007, having contested and lost the parliamentary seat of Dewsbury in 2005. It made her the youngest member of the House of Lords and her subsequent appointment under Cameron to the Conservative’s Community Cohesion brief ensured that she was the first Muslim member of any Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet in parliament.

Her professional CV before entering front-line politics equipped her well for the community cohesion brief she now holds. With a background as a solicitor, she went on to train at the Crown Prosecution Service and the Home Office Immigration Department. For many years she has been an executive member of the Kirklees Racial Equality Council and continues to be an active member of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust's Racial Justice Committee.

But it’s not just her professional credentials that are an asset to her party. With a Conservative front-bench team, drawn disproportionately from a privately educated upper and middle class, Warsi’s working class roots bring a fresh, authentic flavour to the Conservative offering – something that the controversial A-List has been unable to do. She has used this Community Cohesion brief as a platform to generate an impressive personal media profile, superior to many of her colleagues even on the Commons front bench.

Arguably, it was in December 2007 that she achieved the most notoriety and praise when she and Lord Ahmed visited Sudan in an attempt to secure the release of the English teacher, Gillian Gibson, who had been arrested and jailed in Khartoum for naming a teddy bear 'Mohammed'. She met with the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashier and received the thanks of Prime Minister Gordon Brown when Gibson was released by the Sudanese authorities.

However, in her two short years in Westminster her straight-talking approach has sometimes landed her in trouble. She has, for example, been critical of state schools offering 'too politically correct' a curriculum and opposes all-women shortlists for Conservative Parliamentary candidates. Most embarrassing for Warsi however was her 2005 campaign leaflet claiming that Labour's lowering of the homosexual age of consent from 18 to 16 was 'allowing schoolchildren to be propositioned for homosexual relationships.'

Her critics point to her numerous faux pas and her political inexperience as the likely sticking points for Cameron offering her a promotion or her own department in the event of a Conservative general election victory. However, off the record, some Conservative colleagues suggest that it’s not her inexperience that is holding her back. It has been suggested that she is sometimes opinionated purely for the sake of it and that she tends to parrot arguments rather than cultivating her own opinions. Whether this is merely thinly-veiled envy at her meteoric rise or speaks to a closer truth is clearly a matter of opinion.

In March 2009 Warsi was named as Britain’s most powerful Muslim woman by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. True to form, on receiving the honour, she was direct and frank about her concerns with sections of the British Muslim community: 'when Islam is interpreted properly, it is a religion that supports and reveres women. Unfortunately, I don't necessarily think that's always the way that some sectors of the Muslim community interpret it.'

Whether she rises beyond the ranks of junior minister in a Conservative Government remains to be seen. Her political freshness and propensity for frankness are clearly both a blessing and a curse. Either way, the daughter of the migrant mill worker from Yorkshire with a penchant for pink tank tops will almost certainly keep making a name for herself – wherever her political career takes her.

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