Patrick Wintour

Lady Warsi’s resignation may ultimately prove to be a passing summer storm, but the tone of her attack on David Cameron’s policy towards Gaza, and her status as the first Muslim cabinet member suggests her departure has the potential to damage the Conservatives’ re-election chances, especially in seats with large ethnic minorities.

It is not often a minister leaves government warning that its actions, or silence, are morally indefensible, not in the national interest, liable to foster terrorism in the UK and undermine British influence in the Middle East by failing to be fair-minded.

Her criticisms of the style of the government, and the claim that this unease has spread to senior civil servants and ministers in the Foreign Office, has the potential to widen the dispute into a more generalised debate about Cameron’s way of governing. She is bound to be asked whether her concern in her resignation letter is a criticism of the new foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, or the way in which No 10 has led the Foreign Office over the Middle East.

Her resignation letter also makes clear that she regards the departures of Kenneth Clarke and the former attorney general Dominic Grieve in the recent reshuffle as not incidental, but symbolic of a new and more casual approach to international jurisprudence.

That is an astonishing charge sheet, and the gulf between her position and that of Cameron sits oddly alongside claims by George Osborne that her resignation was “frankly an unnecessary decision”. The chancellor’s dismissal is at odds with the verdict of other senior Tories. Alistair Burt, the recently sacked Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East, said Warsi’s departure was a huge loss, and Nicholas Soames, a senior figure on the 1922 committee, urged Cameron to take note.

Boris Johnson, never slow to gauge the public mood, criticised Israel in the sharpest terms within minutes of the peer’s resignation.

Warsi may be deeply disliked by some senior Tories who see her as vain, unprincipled, self-centred and motivated by animus at her demotion from the party chairmanship in 2012. There may have been a misjudgment in ever promoting her, and then preventing her from saying much of consequence about the role of ethnic minorities in the UK.

The Tories currently briefing against her would be wise to remember her symbolic status. Many Labour cabinet members were exasperated by Clare Short’s criticisms in 2003, but her resignation over Iraq made her popular with a certain constituency. In the end the dispute over the Middle East, and Blair’s refusal to publicly demand that Israel cease fire in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 sowed the seeds for his eventual resignation.

On the issue of Gaza, Cameron’s leadership is not at risk, but he is exposed on a foreign policy issue where he is probably not in step with British public opinion, and especially Muslim opinion.

In Cameron’s statements in the Commons - the same line taken in TV studios by Conservative cabinet ministers and at the daily lobby briefings by the prime minister’s spokespeople - there has been a willingness to describe the deaths of Palestinians as horrifying or appalling. They have refused, however, to describe the toll as disproportionate, and Cameron has continued to argue that Hamas is primarily responsible, saying next to nothing about the long-term situation in Gaza.

At one point the government refused to condemn the Israeli attacks on UN schools, saying it needed further evidence on the ground about what had happened.

Even the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ decision to review all arms export licences to Israel was not announced by the government last week, but smuggled out as if Cameron did not support the decision.

Those who accompanied the prime minister to the Middle East were struck by his unequivocal support for Israel in his speech to the Knesset, promising to be with the country “every step of the way”. He has now found that such support comes at a price.–Guardian