The great Roman orator Cicero would have been “horrified” by Boris Johnson, according to Rory Stewart. For all that the outgoing Prime Minister likes to boast of his classical education, “he is all about the thing that the Romans really hated, which they called levitas – levity. He trivialises everything, he turns everything into a joke.”
I spoke to Stewart – soldier-turned-diplomat-turned-politician-turned-podcaster – via video link from his hotel room in Boston: he seems to be frequently travelling to the US. The race to become the next Conservative leader and prime minister is on and, with serendipitous timing, Stewart has a new show on BBC Radio 4 that could help us make sense of it. In The Long History Of Argument, he looks at what has gone wrong in our civic discourse by tracing debate back to its ancient roots. For Cicero, Johnson’s evasive, populist rhetorical style would have been a red flag about his moral character and suitability for high office.
“There was a connection between being a good person, being able to argue well and being able to govern well,” Stewart explained of Rome, pointing out that a refusal to argue in good faith goes hand in hand with an inability to govern. “It’s as though [Johnson’s] put on the mask of a blundering buffoon, and the hope of his supporters is that when he’s in the cabinet room he can take off that mask. But in fact the mask is contaminated by some kind of acid that reaches into his mind, his body, his soul, and he becomes this mask.”
[See also: The post-Johnson era is already a nightmare]
Stewart has experienced this first-hand. He served as minister of state for Africa when Johnson was foreign secretary under Theresa May, and remarked that it was “impossible to have a serious conversation” with his boss because “everything had been turned into cartoon”. When May resigned, Stewart stood in the Tory leadership contest against Johnson, pitching himself as the only candidate prepared to be honest about Brexit. His insurgent campaign enjoyed an unexpected wave of early success – he finished third in the second ballot of Tory MPs – but he was eliminated before reaching the run-off. Stewart made it clear he would never serve in Johnson’s cabinet, and was among the Tory MPs expelled from the parliamentary party in September 2019 for trying to prevent a no-deal Brexit. A month later he announced he’d quit the Conservatives and would be standing as an independent candidate in London’s mayoral election (he dropped out when the contest was delayed due to Covid-19).
These days, Stewart, now 49, is a fellow at Yale University and co-hosts the wildly successful The Rest Is Politics podcast with New Labour grandee Alastair Campbell (their good-natured bickering about the state of British politics frequently ranks top of the Apple podcast charts). The man who three years ago was fighting to lead the Conservatives has become one of the sharpest critics of his former party and its current leader. Indeed, many of his 437,000 Twitter followers (he is something of a cult figure on the platform) seem confused about his political roots.
“Occasionally Twitter wakes up,” Stewart told me. “Someone will be like, ‘wait a second, look at his voting record, this guy’s a Conservative!’ And I have to say, ‘that’s right! I was a Conservative. You’re looking at the voting record of a Conservative MP.’ It’s interesting that there’s this cognitive dissonance.” Today, he’s not even sure he’s still a Tory at all. “People point out that I often spend a lot of my time sounding like a Lib Dem – and probably they’re right.”
Stewart does appear to have moved to the left since being freed from the constraints of party politics. He was loudly calling for a nationwide lockdown in early March 2020, and recently suggested making public transport free to reduce UK reliance on Russian oil. He’s also become a convert to proportional representation, arguing that our first-past-the-post voting system no longer works. But it’s true too that the Conservative Party has shifted decisively rightwards on Brexit and cultural issues since he became – and, indeed, resigned as – an MP. Strikingly, none of those who put themselves forward for the leadership this time around attempted to channel Stewart’s brand of centrist realism. He laughed that “they’ve probably learnt their lesson”; while he is scrupulously polite about his former colleagues, he has also been “disappointed” by the state of the debate. “People who I actually think are quite liberal are pretending to be more conservative. That saddens me a little bit, because I’m looking for a leader who is prepared to take the risk of being honest.” He refused to endorse any of the candidates, and continued: “People are trying to guess what everyone else wants to hear, and deciding they can’t say this or they can’t say that – ‘I can’t possibly say that I’m against shipping people to Rwanda, because if I do I won’t win’. And I think it’s all a bit futile.”
This brings us back to Stewart’s belief that the trend for post-truth politics and breakdown of our ability to argue constructively is having severe consequences for the state of our democracy. “If we’re not truthful about things, we’re not able to come to rational conclusions, we’re not able to understand what’s really going on,” he warned. Though he stressed he doesn’t want to “over-romanticise” the past, he observed that, before social media, politicians at least argued with each other in person, face-to-face in parliament. “Nowadays it feels much more like people are performing, not for the people in the chamber with them but to be overheard in a clip on television or on Twitter. When that happens you’re no longer really engaging as a human being, you’re no longer really trying to persuade someone or being persuaded in turn.”
Twitter and Facebook have a lot to answer for, with algorithms that “reward you for being quite angry and punish you if you’re too subtle. They begin to train you, it’s almost as if you’re in a dog-training school, you begin to learn almost subconsciously what’s going to work on Twitter and what isn’t.” Convincing online companies to tweak their algorithms so they don’t automatically promote the most divisive content would be an important start (perhaps something to raise with another former poster boy for liberal centrism: Facebook vice-president Nick Clegg). Until that happens, his advice to the leadership contenders is to avoid being seduced by the prospect of likes and retweets and by the desire to attract attention into making “dangerous promises”.
“What I didn’t understand at the time,” he said, reflecting on his own leadership bid, “and maybe none of these people understand when you’re in the middle of it, is that you think these things make a difference to whether people support you or not. But people make the decision on a much more basic, broad-brush level.”
Stewart declined to predict the eventual winner, deferring instead to the New Statesman’s tracker of MP endorsements as an indication of what we can expect from each potential PM. Regardless of his personal views on the candidates, he was keen to emphasise how diverse – in terms of ethnicity, gender and background, if not ideology – the initial group of hopefuls was, and thinks it’s interesting how the party has evolved to represent modern Britain in this way while Labour has struggled.
“It’s probably one of the first leadership campaigns for a very long time where there’s not an Old Etonian running,” he mused. An Eton alumnus himself, he does not mention whether he thinks this is a good or bad thing.
[See also: Why the Tory contest is missing a Rory Stewart]
This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party