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20 September 2023

Rory Stewart still doesn’t know who he is

The politician-turned-podcaster is paying the price for his illusions.

By Will Lloyd

Late in the Seventies, Rory Stewart was taken by his godfather, the journalist John Tusa, to the Royal Albert Hall. On show that day was a Chinese acrobatic troupe. They performed scarcely credible physical stunts, balancing acts, dances. The six-year-old Stewart turned to Tusa and said: “I can do that.”

In the 44 years since, Stewart, a politician, traveller and writer, has done just about everything – short of becoming a Chinese acrobat, or the prime minister. His life is more compellingly patterned, more theatrically retold, and perhaps more consciously shaped than any other in our public life.

Stewart has a new book out – a political memoir – but he has been working on the record of his life for years. A Wikipedia account, Chezza88 – named after a bulldog his mother owned – was set up in 2016 to write an entry for his father, Brian, a soldier, colonial officer and, between 1974 and 1979, the second-most powerful man in MI6.

In September 2020, almost a year to the day that he lost the whip along with 20 other Conservative MPs, Chezza88 turned to his own entry, which was updated for the next two years. Details were clarified. The history and seniority of Rory Stewart’s government roles became more pronounced. A section on his podcast, The Rest is Politics, appeared. 

When I emailed Stewart about the account, after spending a significant time with him in September for this profile, he replied: “That account has sometimes been used by me – I wrote my father’s entry – and inserted recent stuff about Rest Is Politics – it was however also heavily used by parliamentary office, leadership and London Campaign teams (and also at one point by mother!).”

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Stewart quit the Conservative Party on 3 October 2019. He announced his candidacy for the London mayoralty the next day. That campaign ended on 6 May 2020, when Stewart withdrew due to the constraints imposed on him by the Covid-19 pandemic. The editing of his Wikipedia page began four months later.

When we spoke on the phone he wanted to clarify that the account had not been doing anything mischievous. He sounded a bit rattled: “I hope there’s nothing really weird or horrible there.” There wasn’t – but the details appeared to contradict the version of the story Stewart had emailed me. He no longer had an MP’s staff when Chezza88 began editing his page.

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It was an unusually confusing story. But this was an unusually confusing time for Stewart.

[See also: The progressive dilemma]

At Eton Rory Stewart was felt to be exotic, unembarrassable and ambitious even by the school’s infinite standards. Stephen Brown, a playwright who has known him since childhood, said that “older boys were not very nice to him”. Another Eton friend, the academic Edward Skidelsky, remembers a “somewhat ridiculous character, very flamboyant”. If Stewart was bullied it seems to have had little effect on him. Stewart told me that he had “no teenage angst”. He wondered if he even had a soul.

Most Eton boys, like the literary critic James Wood, understood as they left the school that, as Wood wrote in 2019, “if we weren’t exactly managing decline, we would certainly not be pioneers of expansion. We inhabited a different world from that of our parents and grandparents.” But the teenage Stewart had no conception of decline. Instead he made up his mind to be a giant. John Tusa remembers his godson walking around his house in the holidays, “reading from great 19th-century political speeches” – practising for the future. Stewart told me that as a young man he had “prepared himself to do something completely astonishing, something that people would talk about for hundreds of years afterwards”. Anything less than greatness seemed unthinkable; in the end, Stewart was an MP for just short of a decade, and a cabinet minister for three months. 

By the time he arrived at Balliol College, Oxford, he was viewed by others there as a creature “from a different galaxy”. He tutored the King’s sons in the holidays. He supposedly spoke more languages than there were terrestrial television channels. He joined the Foreign Office after university. On a sabbatical from diplomatic work he walked for 18 months across Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Afghanistan. Stewart is not good at explaining why he walked across Afghanistan. He did it because he could do it, and maybe because Babur the first emperor of Mughal India had made the same journey. Stewart nearly perished somewhere in the high snowdrifts between Band-e-Amir and Ghorak. He had severe dysentery – he thinks his stomach was never quite the same thereafter – then produced a travelogue that still outsells the other books he later wrote.

The Places in Between was where Stewart developed the precisely tuned voice he uses to describe his accomplishments. First, he would do something that by contemporary standards was romantic, audacious, even deranged: walk solo from Herat to Kabul just after 9/11, or, as he did after the 2003 invasion, agree to be appointed the Coalition Provisional Authority deputy governorate coordinator in Maysan Province in southern Iraq. 

Then, unlike a tub-thumping Victorian gentleman-adventurer writing up his feats in a maximalist style, Stewart repackaged them as bitter failures, in cold, caveated prose that warned its readers that “I have tried not to record what I know to be false”. His friend, the Yale academic and contemporary in Iraq, Emma Sky said that Stewart reworked his experiences into those of a “tragic hero”.

As the 2000s closed the self-styled tragic hero decided to become a Conservative MP. He was profiled by the New Yorker before he even entered the House of Commons.

A powerful, schmaltzy cliché developed. Stewart had fallen through a trapdoor in History. He was a living reminder of grander, more glorious days, when British heroes were players on the stage of empire. Stewart, they all wrote or said, was a “man out of time”; “a character from another century”; “a figure from a bygone age”; “not quite in the 21st century”. The only thing missing from these portraits was a powdered wig, a spaniel and a musket.

Something else clung to Stewart as he was elected MP for Penrith and the Border in 2010. He had followers in the media and academia, and few in the Conservative Party, but it was felt by commentators like Matthew Parris that he might eventually become prime minister. (Sky thinks Stewart “always had his eye on the big prize”, while Skidelsky said the young Stewart was “sure of himself and his destiny”.) It made narrative sense; it was a climax that fulfilled his questing behaviour. It was exactly the sort of thing that would happen to someone like him, just as it had to David Cameron, and would eventually to Boris Johnson

Except that was 13 years ago. Stewart is no longer a politician, and no longer a member of the Conservative Party. When I travelled north from Edinburgh in early September to Stewart’s family home, he had become the most modern thing a person could be. Rory Stewart was a podcaster.

[See also: Rory Stewart on what it’s like to run for prime minister]

Broich House lies on the left bank of the River Earn, just south of Crieff, a Scottish town overlooked by blank brown hills, full of birdsong and empty churches. Before it was owned by the Stewarts, the mansion passed between Highland Scots who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie, Highland Scots who became district officers on the North-West Frontier Province of the Raj, and Highland Scots who made their actual homes in Kolkata. The wide, squat, grey Georgian building passed from the McLaurin-Monteaths to the Murrays, and then to the Stewarts.

My first meeting with Stewart came several months before at a dinner in the bullseye centre of London. Its purpose was pre-publicity for the new book, Politics on the Edge. He was now less famous for his writing, or his attempt to win the Conservative leadership four years ago, than he was for the astonishingly successful and lucrative podcast he had presented since 2022 with Alastair Campbell, The Rest is Politics. Stewart spoke carefully at the dinner about his book and his prospects of a return to British politics. He took tentative sips from a glass of white wine, as the journalists at the table grew more and more drunk on free alcohol. We were asked if we had questions for Stewart. A senior editor from the London Review of Books began a long, meandering, hesitating, prattling anecdote, which eventually arrived at a destination. This person wanted to pass on a message to Stewart from a friend in the civil service who had worked with him: Rory, you were just, you know, well, simply, an awfully good minister. Stewart looked pained – as if he’d been kicked by a small and angry pony – thanked the writer, and slightly bowed his head.

Over the summer Stewart agreed to be accompanied by the New Statesman on the first leg of the publicity tour for the book. We would meet in Crieff, take the train to Manchester where he was due to speak at the Lowry theatre, and then proceed from there to London. But the trains were cancelled due to strike action. We would be spending much of the weekend together in a car.

Stewart’s mother, Sally, greeted me beneath Broich House’s jutting Doric-style portico. Stewart himself then appeared, looking pale and tired, wearing a blue-and-white-checked country shirt, a manager-class quarter-zip fleece, navy blue corduroys and brown Chelsea boots. He was ethereally thin. I followed him through the hallway into a narrow kitchen, past a truly enormous doll’s house that was an exact replica of the mansion it stood in; past boxes of silver cutlery, walking sticks and walls thickly hung with memories of how Stewart’s father and grandfather had lived, when a Scottish officer’s hobbies were shooting animals, and occasionally, men. An oblivious orange tabby sauntered around.

We walked around the gardens and grounds and fields of Broich House while we waited for the car. Stewart moved fast and changed direction abruptly, stamping on nettles as he strode. He was annoyed by a recent innuendo-studded interview he had given to the Times, in which the interviewer indicated – to Stewart’s incredulity – that he did not like women. He said he was not psychologically prepared to speak at length to the press again. Then he told me about the dream – a nightmare – he had the night before. He was waiting in a queue at airport security, with friends, and the historian Timothy Garton Ash. The line moved and the opaque logic of the dream became clearer. They were not in an airport. The queue was taking them towards a machine that would chop Rory Stewart’s head off. When he woke up, he realised that he was not ready to die.

Stewart wanted to show me something. We trudged through a stretch of Himalayan balsam, a pink orchid-resembling flower with bursting seeds. When we reached the front of Stewart’s land he pointed through a gap in a hedge. Look: a new housing estate was creeping over the field towards Broich House. It was the same on the other side of the path. The suburbs of Crieff were advancing, closer and closer, unstoppably closer towards his home in a pincer movement. He calculated that several thousand people would soon be his neighbours, bringing with them cars, animals, light and noise. Stewart, who was permanently moving to London, said he was fine with the development. He was resigned to Broich House becoming an island in the middle of a housing estate. His face was somewhere between a smile and a wince: “I can no longer live the life of a quixotic Scottish country gentleman.”

When we returned, a Mercedes with a driver was waiting for us outside the house. Stewart found his suitcase, kissed his mother goodbye, and we began the journey south.

[See also: Danny Kruger: “The moral condition of England is worse”]

Politics on the Edge is a book of recrimination, anger, shame and oblivion. It is about the failures of the Conservative Party, the failures of Britain, and the failures of Rory Stewart. Stewart said “he kept coming back to Tacitus” as he wrote. The Roman historian’s Annals describe the eclipse of the senate: its powerlessness under successive emperors and its descent into servile degeneracy. Politics on the Edge has the same message: parliament once knew better days. Its members are squandering a precious inheritance. Their failures are moral. Stewart thinks it will “make a lot of people angry”.

I asked him why anybody would want to be an MP after reading his book. While Stewart still meets with prospective MPs, he describes being a politician as “brutal” and “enervating”: “I became a worse person doing it.” He seems to have experienced the past decade as one long insult. After speaking with Stephen Brown, I wondered if Stewart had managed to replicate the worst experiences of his school days in parliament. Were the older boys being mean to him again? Stewart told Brown that his experience of politics was one of “being publicly humiliated on an epic scale”. When friends tell him they might enter politics, Stewart offers them advice: “Don’t.”

He returned to Westminster briefly last month. Portcullis House was leaking. The potted Indonesian trees that used to line its lobby had been removed. “I found it very, very depressing,” Stewart said. “I walked past the door of a colleague of mine who is currently suspended for allegations of sexual misconduct. And then I walked past the door of another colleague, who is currently under investigation for taking corrupt money and not declaring it.” Nothing had changed since 2019.

In conversation, and in Politics on the Edge, Stewart makes the Commons sound worse than Iraq, where several attempts were made to kill him and his colleagues with mortars and rockets, during a siege of their compound in Nasiriyah by Sadrist militias in May 2004. He thinks it was “definitely” worse being an MP than being the deputy governor of an Iraqi province. “The people who were shooting at me in Iraq I felt much more respectful towards than some of the people I dealt with in parliament.”

Political memoirs are often packaged to further political careers. Stewart likes to toy with speculation that he will return, somehow, to power. This month he suggested one route back might be through the Scottish Parliament; then he told another journalist that he would still like to be prime minister. Last summer he was reportedly part of an advisory board on the “Britain Project”, a Tony Blair Institute initiative that some saw as an embryonic new centre party. Stewart’s independent run for the London mayoralty in 2020 – abandoned when Covid hit that March – was an attempt to win meaningful power from the centre ground. Now The Rest is Politics, which is downloaded six million times a month, makes Stewart look like one of the only popular politicians left in Britain.

But there is nothing about what politics ought to be in this memoir. The book is entirely destructive. And the longer I spent with him in the back of the Mercedes, talking about 12th-century monasticism or VS Naipaul’s writing, the less Stewart seemed like a politician. When he outlined Laurence Sterne’s life in Encyclopaedia Britannica-level detail, Stewart sounded wryly professorial. When he talked about the “odd job” of being an MP, or the madness of trying to fight Boko Haram through Department for International Development schemes in Nigeria, Stewart just sounded sad and lost.

Politics on the Edge confirms that. When old Tory colleagues read the book Stewart thinks they will see him as “vengeful, ungrateful, over-privileged”. (One Tory source said: “He comes across often in that book as if he thinks he’s cleverer than everyone else.”) “It may be subconsciously written to ensure I can never return,” he said. Stewart was warned by Campbell, and his friend Michael Ignatieff – a public intellectual who made his own disastrous foray into Canadian politics – about the likely impact of the book. “They were like, ‘Rory, do you really want to do this because if you’re gonna go back into this game, you don’t want to do this to your colleagues.’” Stewart ignored them. He also ignored the fact that when Tacitus damned the Roman senate for all time, the people he described were safely dead.

We were heading down the A74, towards Gretna Green and the border. Every so often Stewart flicked a smart, adhesive glance at my notebook, before looking back to the car window, and the green fields that passed silently by.

He admitted that he was “thin-skinned”. The New Yorker profile written about him 13 years ago still bothered Stewart: “We are incapable of taking anyone seriously, aren’t we?” He complained that Ian Parker, the writer who profiled him, “wanted… my turns of phrase, my body language, my comical interactions with people”. Parker did not write about the thing Stewart is proudest of, his time in the 2000s running Turquoise Mountain, an NGO in Kabul. “It would be nice for somebody to try to take seriously what I’ve done well and badly.”

“Yeah, but you’re a character Rory,” I said.

He laughed and compared himself to Uncle Toby, a figure from Tristram Shandy. Uncle Toby is gentle, gallant and mad. A soldier forced into retirement by a groin injury, he spends his twilight years obsessively building miniature fortifications in his garden. He refights youthful battles, with no prospect of ever being called to war again.

[See also: Rory Stewart’s lessons in arguing well]

When we stopped at a motorway services in Gretna, people recognised Rory Stewart. They either scuttled away, or approached him to say how wonderful he was. He has this in common with Boris Johnson: ordinary people admire him and think he is their friend.

Immense unease radiated from him, as unmistakable as the smell of burnt toast. Three hours into our journey, what surprised me most was how damaged Stewart was. In our conversations he described himself as “tortured”, “complicated” and “very, very different to the person who started in 2010”. Stewart seemed to be paying the price for not becoming the leader he thought he was.

How did it feel when the public saluted him? “It’s disturbing,” Stewart said. People felt like they knew him but they didn’t.

We sat on plastic chairs in the middle of a food court. Stewart ate a box of sushi dutifully, stabbing at the rolls, or shovelling them into his mouth with a fork. He ate like he hated food. The air was close. The noise – screaming children, yelling Burger King staff – was almost intolerable. We were not in the common room at Balliol, nor were we lounging in the library at White’s Club. We were far from the places and rewards Stewart was trained to inherit. We were a very long way from Westminster.

That night Stewart was interviewed on a stage at the Lowry theatre in Manchester by the Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins. The giant auditorium was filled with The Rest is Politics fans who cheered when Stewart arrived. It was a remarkable turnout for an ex-Tory cabinet minister in a northern city.

Earlier, Stewart told me that he had hoped to war-game the evening beforehand with Jenkins. Within minutes it was evident that no high-level strategy had been developed. Jenkins was incorrigible. He kept attacking Stewart’s podcast, which was, implicitly, an attack on everybody who had turned up to watch Stewart. The Rest is Politics, said Jenkins, was just a “cosy cluster in the middle”. When Jenkins listened to it, Stewart “seemed to be agreeing with him [Campbell] more than he agrees with you”. Discomfort bounced around the room. There was sparse coughing. Jenkins told Stewart he did not understand politics. Stewart told Jenkins that he had been a politician for a decade, and understood Westminster better than somebody who wrote columns about it.

At the interval, left-wing people told each other what a good bloke Stewart was. “What a different world we would live in if he had won,” one airily said. It was a strange kind of populism. They did not really understand that Stewart was a small-c conservative, a paternalist and a moralist. He venerates the past and sometimes thinks it was better than the present. He was “a believer in the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Church of England”. The way they talked about him mirrored the way some Conservative Party members continue to speak about Johnson. They did not know, as Emma Sky later put it to me, that “Rory is not a man of the people”. Stewart’s fans believed he could recover from the disasters of politics by putting himself in the way of more. But when did another bottle ever cure an alcoholic?

The following morning another black Mercedes arrived to take us to London. Stewart said he’d had a better sleep. He was cheerful as we discussed the previous night’s event. I suggested it was dangerous for Stewart, if he really wanted to go back into politics, to become a commodified light entertainment product. 

He paused for a long time. Whenever he really stopped and thought, he chewed at his thumb or index finger. He said the podcast was an “amazing stroke of good fortune” (sources estimate Stewart’s earnings from the podcast at anywhere from £800,000 to £2.5m a year) but it still made him uneasy. “It cannot be the central meaning of my life.”

Later, he told me how ashamed he felt for being praised as a public speaker. “I feel like a sort of performing monkey. And that I’m doing something which is impressing people, but is a sort of trick.” Was it the same as a magic trick, in that the audience had to suspend their disbelief for the illusion to work? “I definitely have an element of vulgarity and the showman,” Stewart said. “I have knacks and tricks.”

A thread running through Stewart’s writing is a classically Tory distrust of abstract doctrine. In each of his four books there is a contest between theory and practice, fantasy and reality, the way things are and the way human beings wish them to be. These forces stretch a character called Rory Stewart in opposite directions, until he is pulled apart by them. The character goes looking for power, and finds that it doesn’t exist.

Stewart often says he is a realist. The novelists he loves – Graham Greene, James Salter, VS Naipaul, JM Coetzee – shared a similar worldview. When Stewart described the problems he had with being an MP, they often came down to a basic lack of knowledge. On The Rest is Politics he faces the same problem. “We can never really go into proper depth,” he said. “I mean, the embarrassment of it is that every episode I’m holding forth on things that I have a very general, pretty superficial knowledge of.” Stewart seems unhappy talking about, say, German politics in a way that Campbell does not. He wants to be more than a talking head.

The day before I had asked Stewart how he could bear to spend so much time with Campbell. How was Campbell a better man than Boris Johnson? How could Stewart think of Brexit as a worse mistake than the Iraq War? “I get that they made these catastrophic blunders,” Stewart said. “But I still can’t quite see… Alastair in the same way that I see Boris Johnson.”

Stewart hated Johnson. This hatred was not proportional, nor was it rational. He said that even his mother told him to “shut up about Boris”. But Stewart could not shut up; it was all too… intimate. Johnson was an apostate from Stewart’s class: the sons of Eton and Balliol, destined to govern Britain. At times it’s difficult for Stewart to talk about class. He acknowledged that it’s “weird” and “embarrassing”. He knew that it was possible to argue that the very notion of public service was a trick the upper classes have played on the lower orders for centuries.

[See also: We’re all working class now]

Stewart and Johnson were taught by the same classics master at Eton, Martin Hammond, who compares the pair to Mark Antony (Boris) and Brutus (Rory). “I feel all the education he received,” said Stewart. “All the values he’s supposed to be living.” He thought that the “only thing going for the idea of privilege or the British gentleman, was supposed to be that they were reasonably honourable”. Johnson was Stewart’s shadow, a parody of the values he had dedicated his life to. They are back inside the school gates reliving schoolboy fantasies and humiliations. The rest of us are collateral.

Losing the leadership contest to Johnson in 2019 – a battle that Stewart had almost no chance at all of winning – continued to depress him. For years he released packs of rhetorical bloodhounds after Johnson, to no effect. (Despite being a major figure in the book, there was originally “much, much, much, much more; much, much more” about Johnson in Politics on the Edge.) The only person who could bring Johnson down in the end was Johnson himself. Both men had washed up in a strange place. Stewart was a podcaster tormented by a Daily Mail columnist. Only one had claimed the first prize. As far as I could tell, Johnson had never said anything in public that was critical of Stewart.

We spent a while going over the second television debate in the 2019 leadership contest. What could Stewart have done better? He was the most popular candidate in the race – with voters who did not vote Conservative. Even if, by some miracle, he had beaten Johnson, what then? He would have been up against Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. The words didn’t seem to make Stewart feel better.

Did he want to be Brutus? No. “I’d like to be Cato the Younger,” Stewart said. “What I like about him was that he said ‘Caesar is disgusting’.” Stewart laughed. “Caesar is disgusting.” In Stewart’s mind, Johnson was now Julius Caesar. He was disgusting.

When Cato the Younger lost his battles against Caesar in 46 BC, he stabbed himself in the abdomen. According to Plutarch, the thrust did not cut deep enough to kill, but Cato would rather die than live under Caesar’s rule. So Cato “tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died”. Cato’s was the kind of death Stewart admires most: violent, noble and pointless.

We were by now 400 miles away from his home in Scotland, travelling through London’s western outlands. The Mercedes sped along the M4.

How does Rory Stewart become Emmanuel Macron, the moderate leader of his own party or movement? I asked him what the routes were, and we went through them one by one. Well, he could return to the Conservative Party – but he thought Suella Braverman would be the next leader, and he would not want to work with her. Could he join Labour? Wouldn’t it be a bit weird to pick the winning team again? And besides, nothing he said about Starmer – “nostalgic for the world of the 1990s” – made that seem likely. He could create his own party as Macron had: the Rory Stewart Party. It would swallow the next 15 years of his life. He sounded exhausted just talking about it. There was the mayoral option again… a city… but which party… when? We were silent for a while.

“It doesn’t feel like you’re going to go back to politics,” I said, towards the end of the journey. 

“No,” said Stewart. “It doesn’t feel like I’m going to.”

His wife, Shoshana, thought he would be “out of his mind” to make a comeback. His friend Matthew Parris told me that Stewart “has moved on” from Westminster. A return was ludicrous.

Stewart was only a “romantic” in the sense that he had a dream that failed him. Would life ever be as good to him as it was on some sunny June evening walking along the Eton Road in his tails, when his possibilities were endless? His experiences in politics had scratched something out of him. He had played a terrible trick on himself, and was now paying the price for it. The heroic vision of the world he once had, when he recited verses from Chapman’s Homer to himself, was gone.

He insisted that he no longer saw reality in those terms and sometimes I believed him. Rory Stewart was leaving a long hallucination behind, but he was still struggling to reconcile what he imagined he might have been with what he had become.

[See also: How the left forgot the petty bourgeoisie]

Politics on the Edge by Rory Stewart is published in hardback by Jonathan Cape, Vintage.

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