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Monday, June 4, 2012

Baroness Warsi plays a valuable role in British relations with Pakistan

Senior allies of Baroness Warsi last night hit back at allegations that she misused her position as Conservative Party Chairman to take foreign trips at taxpayers' expense.

Reports yesterday highlighted the fact that Lady Warsi had taken 17 foreign visits in the past two years – despite her role being to foster relations with Tories in Britain.

But The Independent has been told that the visits – which have included Pakistan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia – were explicitly authorised by David Cameron and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague.

Sources said they included sensitive negotiations to find a "second route" out of Afghanistan after the Pakistanis vetoed plans to let the UK move its heavy military equipment through the country.

Lady Warsi, they said, had also been tasked to maintain channels of communication with Islamabad at a time of heightened tensions with the West. It is understood she has visited Pakistan at least five times since being appointed a minister.

Senior Government sources said the trips by Britain's first Muslim Cabinet minister have not been publicised because of security concerns and because some are diplomatically and politically sensitive. "The idea that somehow Warsi has been travelling the world for fun at the taxpayer expense is simply rubbish," said a senior Conservative. "Part of her job when appointed was to be a Government envoy to that part of the world. Everything is signed off by William and the PM, and to suggest otherwise is just nonsense.

Yet in Pakistan, she remains a heroine. In a country where political power is inherited, sequestered within a tiny ruling elite, she is a reminder that there is a different future possible for millions of poor Pakistanis.

Her strength is her connection to ordinary people, in particular those areas of the Punjab and Kashmir where hundreds of thousands left for a better life in the UK, just like her father who famously arrived with just a few pounds in his pocket. So when she travelled to her father's hometown of Bewal in 2010 to be feted by drummers and showered with rose petals, she arrived with her parents, friends and hangers-on, many of whom had grown up in rural Punjab and who retained close links to the area.

Personal connections are the key to getting business done in this part of the world and Baroness Warsi's informal networks are a priceless addition to the Foreign Office suits – predominantly still white, male and privately educated – who rotate in and out of Pakistan every couple of years or less. (I'm told the FCO struggles to recruit Urdu-speaking British Pakistanis for the role, as they fail to get security clearance.)

It is Baroness Warsi's informal links that give her an "in" to Pakistan's political life.

But those are the risks too. She has already been in trouble for taking her British-funded car and security team for a family wedding on one trip. And now she is under scrutiny for her relationship to Abid Hussain, her business partner. He has travelled to the country with her more than once. In 2010, wary Foreign Office officials made sure he – and other friends and relatives – were kept at arms' length. Although he spoke at rallies, he travelled separately from the official delegation without British protection staff.

It may be a slightly unorthodox way of doing things, but it is the right way to do business in Pakistan where personal connections matter more than policy or protocol. Her visits have been accompanied by reams of glowing press coverage, unlike David Cameron's gaffe-prone trips to the region, first insulting Pakistan during a visit to India and then bizarrely apologising for the conflict in Kashmir a year later in Pakistan, kicking off another political storm.
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