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28 July 2021

Rory Stewart is on the road again

After runs for the Tory leadership and mayor of London, the former cabinet minister is criss-crossing continents – teaching at Yale, rebuilding in Jordan. Could he have been a great pandemic PM?  

By Kate Mossman

From Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, on a hot day in June, Rory Stewart can see his family home in Crieff across the Forth Bridge, 60 kilometres into central Perthshire. No one else can see it – it is not actually visible – but Stewart has a crow’s eyes for distance, believing that pretty much any place can be walked to.

The founding event of his life was his 21-month, 6,000-mile trek across Asia in his late twenties, ending in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Once that proved possible – with two pairs of socks, one change of clothes, antibiotics and, at one point, two miserable guards – other walks were easy. As MP for Penrith and the Border, Stewart combed 600 miles of his constituency with a walking stick. After he lost the Conservative leadership contest in 2019, he spent part of the summer walking from Newcastle to Hartlepool. When he ran for mayor of London as an independent candidate, he planned strolls through all 32 boroughs, until a pandemic made it impossible.

Now, in a kind of political exile, lecturing at Yale, where there are no hills, Stewart is on a brief visit home, picking his way up Edinburgh’s ex-volcano. He is dressed not in kilt and sporran, as he sometimes is, nor in the traditional Afghan hat in which he crossed war zones, but in a neat navy suit, tackling a path beset with ankle-snapping holes. The New Statesman is so out of breath it can’t ask Stewart any questions, but his own breathing hasn’t changed. “I’m sorry!” he says softly. “It’s sort of… what I… do.”

A few minutes earlier, Stewart fuelled himself in a quiet pub on the Royal Mile: he was half an hour late and arrived in a mask, without handshake, and scanned the table for a menu. He ate chips the way I saw him eat chips in a Brixton chicken shop, in a video from his mayoral campaign: head down, fast and end-on, like a teenage boy. He had just come from Edinburgh Airport, where his wife, Shoshana, had taken a plane to Jordan. The family, including their small sons, will spend the next two years there working with the charity Stewart co-founded, Turquoise Mountain, while he commutes once a term to Yale. What will he be doing in Jordan? “Restoring a ruined Roman site up on the edge of the Golan Heights, in order to create employment for Syrian refugees, Palestinians, Jordanians in the area.” He removes the bun from his burger.

Stewart was a popular Tory leadership candidate, the only contender who got rounds of applause for almost everything he said on the first TV debate in June 2019, in which Boris Johnson was represented by an empty stand. While Dominic Raab, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid insisted they’d get a new Brexit deal by 31 October, Stewart said there was no chance. He compared the effort to the time his wife caught him trying to stuff three rubbish bags into a single bin.

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When Stewart talks like this, he has some of Tony Blair’s mild exasperation – as if explaining something very simple to a group of people who aren’t really listening. He was eliminated in the third round of voting, and said he wouldn’t work under Johnson. When he voted with Labour to prevent a no-deal Brexit, he had the whip removed.

[See also: The courage of Desmond Tutu]

In retrospect, perhaps 2020 was the year to have taken a punt on a politician used to working in disaster zones, who had served in Iraq’s coalition government, who loved being flood envoy for Cumbria and Lancashire after the treacherous winter of 2015, and who worked on the Ebola crisis under Theresa May. As the pandemic unfolded, did he think, “Lucky escape for me”?

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“No! I like governments in crisis,” he says. “When my colleagues would say, ‘There are floods all across the north-west of England, it’s going to destroy your career,’ I’d say, ‘No, I love it! I’m going to stand in the flood water.’”

On 12 March 2020, when he was still a mayoral candidate, Stewart called for lockdown. “The government doesn’t want to shut schools but we are going to shut schools,” he said at the time. “This is literally the most serious epidemic that we have faced since the… First World War.” He suggested the use of the military. Today he continues in the language of flood relief.

“I was used to sitting in planning meetings with everyone saying, ‘Why don’t we wait and see what the water’s doing?’ and I’d say, ‘No, get the sandbags out, why take the risk?’ I’d throw myself on a train up to the north-west, turn up and the water wouldn’t rise. But when it did rise, we were ready to go. There’s a real tendency in government not to want to be embarrassed by playing chicken. But I believe in being hysterical.”

Stewart disagreed with the argument for herd immunity. “What was difficult was that I had Matt Hancock, Mark Sedwill, Chris Whitty and others angry with me, because they felt I was trying to undermine public confidence in the strategy. Matt sent me an angry text in early March saying, ‘I don’t even see the point of talking to you, you’ve just allied yourself with Piers Morgan.’

“I realised that they assumed I wasn’t calling for lockdown because I genuinely believed it, but that it had some angle to do with my London mayoral run. And that’s a really interesting lesson, that nothing in politics is ever taken at face value.”

***

Reading Rory Stewart’s CV has a dizzying effect on the brain, inciting a strange mixture of excitement, envy and bafflement. It seems to belong to another age. Born in British Hong Kong; joined the Black Watch on his gap year. Diplomatic service in Indonesia and Montenegro (many believe he was working for MI6, as his father had). With the Light Infantry in southern Iraq, he defended besieged compounds, and got an OBE for his administrative services. Alongside his political career – minister of state for Africa, secretary of state for international development, chairman of the Defence Select Committee – his Wikipedia page lists him as an explorer. You wonder how he achieved all this by the age of 48, unless each job was undertaken for a few weeks at a time.

Doors open for him. While at Balliol College, Oxford, he tutored Prince Harry and Prince William, around the time of their parents’ separation. On the Afghanistan leg of his epic walk, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tagged along. The book Stewart wrote about the experience, The Places in Between, won many awards, and he’s been recognised by the Royal Geographical Society for his travel writing.

Walking the walk: Rory Stewart during his Asian trek in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 2002

Stewart was not a Tory at all until 2009, when he decided to become a Tory MP. The first time he voted Conservative – apart from a rogue proxy vote by his parents – he was voting for himself. Some in Westminster identify in him a belief that he has a preordained right to lead. A former colleague from the May government tells me: “He’s undoubtedly cerebral and intellectually gifted, certainly in comparison to most people in parliament. He was the kind of Tory that if he’d been the official candidate, he could have stood a chance in London –very European, very international. But he’s extremely adept at self-publicity – actually heavy-handed. He was sat next to a friend of mine’s at dinner before he went into parliament, and he asked, ‘What do you think of my watch?’ Then he whipped it off, turned it over and said, ‘The prince of Wales gave it to me!’ He has those kind of tendencies.”

But the former justice secretary David Gauke, who endorsed Stewart’s leadership bid and lost the whip at the same time as him, says Stewart never entered the leadership contest thinking he could win. “It was about making a stand,” he tells me. “It was about saying, we shouldn’t default to chasing after Brexit Party voters, and we do have to act in a way that is responsible. There are huge amounts of moral seriousness about him. He could see that a lot of the arguments being used were damaging to the long-term interests of the country. He’d have been offered a place in Boris Johnson’s government if he’d kept his head down, but he is not someone who gives up a fight easily.”

Gauke thinks that, politically, Stewart has “one more big contribution to come. There’s a considerable constituency of people out there who are politically homeless, who might naturally vote Conservative but feel uncomfortable with the direction the party has taken. For them Rory Stewart would be the right answer.”

Stewart is specific about the kind of conservative he is: Burkean, pragmatic, anti-government after his time in the Iraq coalition. He has called party politics an insanely stressful and intense job and talks about its structures as if he were an alien reporting on a brief trip to another planet. But hiking high above the Scottish parliament today, he is itching to get back to something. Can he see himself rejoining the Tories? “I think it would be very, very difficult,” he says. “The party has changed so much.”

[See also: David Lidington: “Remainers need to move on from grieving about Brexit”]

Recently, he did a photoshoot in the countryside and the photographer set floodlights around him. When the magazine ran the shot with the floodlights in view, he was upset by the sense of artifice – just as he remains stung by a 2010 New Yorker profile that deconstructed some of the more swashbuckling elements of his CV. The writer, Ian Parker, “didn’t want to take at all seriously what I’d done in Afghanistan, where I felt, this is one thing in my life where I have really done something tangible”.

Stewart’s mother told the New Yorker that perception of his class is “the thing he has to fight against all the time”. He can be almost thespishly warm; at one point, concerned by my wheezing, he fleetingly calls me sweetie. Does it upset him to have his sincerity questioned? “Yes, but I guess that’s the oddity of politics in general: you’re not a normal human being. And even as a sacked politician, you’re not.”

***

Stewart didn’t enjoy his time at Harvard, where he lectured on human rights. “I was competitive with my students. I was 35 and all my colleagues said, it’s such a privilege teaching these wonderful young people who are going to go on and do amazing things. And I said” – he puts on a whiney voice – “‘Why can’t I do amazing things?’” His smile is at is biggest, his voice high with a sense of the ridiculous. Yale is better – “maybe because I’m older” – yet he is aware of a stigma. “If I were to give an academic lecture on populism, people would read it as a failed politician expressing his bitterness.”

Does he get called a “failed politician”? “In the States it’s fine, but I think in Britain it’s very easy for people to say, ‘Well, come on, Rory, obviously you grumbled about Boris because he won and you lost.’”

In November last year Stewart reviewed Tom Bower’s biography of Boris Johnson in the Times Literary Supplement, analysing Johnson’s many and various types of lie. It was the latest in a tradition of colourful takedowns of the man who clearly fascinates him: when he left the Conservative Party Stewart read out, to great applause, a letter from Johnson’s house master at Eton, moaning about the boy to his father Stanley. “You can imagine someone like Disraeli doing that to Gladstone,” his former Tory colleague tells me. “The Victorians were extremely rude to each other despite their reputation for manners, and I think there’s a bit of that going on with Rory.”

How has Stewart felt, watching Johnson over the past 12 months? “I’m beginning to see the ways in which he has a kind of political genius,” Stewart says. “I find him infuriating, but there is something mesmerising about him. With all the things that appal me about his moral character, he is much more interesting, obviously, than David Cameron or Theresa May. And he’s able to seem lucky. Like mishandling lockdown, then having a good vaccination roll-out.”

You think that was luck? “No, it’s a logical aspect of his personality. He’s the antithesis of a politician I really admire, Angela Merkel, who was good at the lockdown and bad at vaccinations. To be good at lockdown, you need to be very detail-orientated, very concerned with getting to the bottom of the science, very attentive to what’s happening in other parts of the world. Angela is a research scientist, who was extremely prudent. That went wrong for her when it came to the vaccination because she, and indeed the Commission in general, were far too professional and careful about their procurement: ‘Are we sure this drug is going to work? We can’t buy it before it’s been tested.’ Whereas it was Trump and Johnson’s approach that turned out, frustratingly, to be better, because they saw the big picture: ‘Throw the kitchen sink at it.’ We bought 400 million vaccines for a country of 70 million. But that simplistic approach is much less suitable for 95 per cent of the stuff that politics ought to be about: governing a country.”

Stewart credits Johnson with a “preternatural instinct for a particular type of English Tory tone”. He first met him in Iraq in 2005: Johnson was a visiting MP “and he seemed surprisingly quiet, not self-important, didn’t push his views”. He goes into a dissection of the article Johnson wrote for the Spectator on his return: acknowledgment that the coalition was making a mess of the country; patriotism, self-deprecation and, finally, complete absolution of British responsibility. “I don’t think any other politician can quite do that. In a world that feels to me unmoored, where we’ve lost touch with local reality and are all of us operating in a funny, global, virtual world, his contentlessness is part of the genius. Because there’s no other way that you can break the rebels and also try to hold Swindon.”

Stewart draws a comparison between Johnson and the SNP – “both brilliant insofar as they never give you much content at all. The SNP don’t really try to say much about what Scotland is or England isn’t. And Boris doesn’t want to tell you a great deal about what the Conservative Party is, or what global Britain is. Because if he were to do so, he would begin alienating people.”

Will there be a downfall? “Well, you notice that people defending him can’t quite bring themselves to say that he’s a joke. It’s difficult to measure the performance of politicians, because what they’re trying to do is complicated, long-term and a bit obscure, and we can’t work out who’s responsible for what. People who think that the public will discover, by the next election, that Johnson has failed to level up are fooling themselves.”

Stewart bemoans the amount of power concentrated in the hands of local councillors, and goes into an extended digression about Justin Tomlinson, the MP for North Swindon, who “chipped away at the local authority, spent five years canvassing with his mother”. It is people like Tomlinson, he thinks, who provide the conditions in which someone like Johnson can come to power.

“He’s a guy who, on the surface, totally despises anybody who he thinks isn’t local, was deeply suspicious of somebody like me. But he endorses Boris for the leadership, when Boris is the epitome of everything he isn’t. Politics has become a permanent electoral campaign: competence, performance in parliament or ministry, even your moral character, don’t matter. What matters is, are you likely to win these seats? Justin will have calculated, despite the fact that Boris’s entire career seems to be the antithesis of his world-view, that this guy’s going to win.”

Has politics aged Rory Stewart, I wonder?

“Oh god, definitely. Physically. If you see pictures of me…” He gets out his phone, and spends a large amount of time searching for footage of himself giving a talk in 2006, before he ran for parliament. He scrolls and scrolls: “I’m concerned that I can’t find it, and I want to get this out of the way.” Here he is on American TV, much plumper of face and smoother of skin.

“Woah,” he says. “I literally look 12.”

***

One of Stewart’s appealing traits as an MP was that he said very obvious things. He pointed out how crazy it is to have frequent cabinet reshuffles just as incumbent ministers are achieving results. He approached Penrith and the Border “like an NGO”, rolling out broadband in rural Cumbria.

“One thing that’s weird about being a politician is that you’re a sort of obsessive stalker,” he says. “A completely unequal relationship. Because you’re totally obsessed with your constituents and you want to feel there’s this intense, obligatory relationship between you and these people who voted for you. Yet they barely know you exist. They spend seven minutes a week thinking about politics, half of them don’t vote, and of those, half of them didn’t vote for you.”

The residents of Uxbridge would probably not call Boris Johnson an obsessive stalker.

“Maybe I missed the point! I could give you a lecture on why Penrith and the Border is completely different from any other place in Britain. And yet, of course, I was partly doing it because I was nervous I wasn’t local enough. I became an insane expert: I could name every one of the 200 villages in the constituency, and list 40 people in each village. I made a BBC documentary about the Iron Age history of the area, and tried to argue it was an independent kingdom. But that’s not really what somebody means when they say that they’re local.”

Stewart seems to be defined by opposing forces: the desire to become deeply involved in places, and the sense that he can’t quite be accepted. He traces the first to his father, Brian Stewart, a much-decorated colonial officer in Asia, and a spook; at one point, he was number two in MI6.

“If you went on holiday with him to the Philippines he would buy [an] Agatha Christie in Tagalog and struggle his way through on the plane. By the time we’d woken up, he would have walked through the city and returned with some strange object you were going to eat for breakfast,” Stewart says. “He was deeply competitive, a driven Scot who thought the way to get ahead was to ensure that he always knew more than everyone else. Are you OK for a bit more driving upwards?” Stewart pushes further up Arthur’s Seat.

Father and son were close: Brian instructed him in rigorous fencing practice at dawn every day. He died in his son’s arms in 2015. Stewart had been called back to Crieff, where his elderly parents lived with his younger sister Fiona, who has Down’s syndrome. He was taking a walk in the garden, “When my baby sister came running and shouted for me – he was having a heart attack. I tried to resuscitate him and failed.”

I ask if he had done CPR before. “Yes. I failed once in Mozambique as well.”

***

When you cease to be a politician you become quite long-winded,” Stewart reflects. “You’re very used, when you’re campaigning, to focusing on the message. Afterwards, all this introspection, complexity, vagueness comes out and you become a much less well-defined character – there is no longer any message you’re trying to get across.”

As he talks, he takes my Dictaphone and holds it close, away from the wind.

So the more you think, the harder it is to be a politician? “That is definitely true.”

While Stewart’s résumé carries a powerful aura of privilege, his experiences have given him a distinct perspective on the world. His mind seems to be structured differently, with an enlarged sense of space and possibility. His conversation shuttles between Scotland and Kosovo (independence), Edinburgh and Kabul (height of mountains). He finds borders faintly absurd.

“Scottish nationalism interests me. In my constituency, I’d find people whose first cousin was just ten yards over the border, or who worked on one side and lived on the other. There’s absolutely no difference, but somehow this defines everything.”

How sustainable is it for Westminster to continue to block a new vote on Scottish independence? “Ultimately, it’s difficult to refuse a referendum, because we’ve got in this funny habit of doing these 50 + 1 things. In South Sudan, 95 per cent of people will vote for independence. But everything we do, whether it’s Brexit or Scotland, it’s 54-46, 52-48. That’s a rubbish number on which to make big decisions.”

Does he think independence is inevitable? “I don’t. I think it’s 50-50. Modern nationalism is surreal – it’s not rooted in blood and soil in the way that 19th-century nationalism was. Scottish nationalism is a sort of accident: it’s the creation of a Scottish parliament and the media reinforces it… I come up from London and I can’t get the same news; if I’m trying to watch ITV, I have to literally hack the system.”

Stewart is sympathetic towards Keir Starmer, “but I did think he was, I’m afraid, a little on the dull side in the House of Commons. Instead of finding the one or two skewering points, he was very long-winded. And I know that’s called being forensic, but I wasn’t sure. But my view of him is that it’s not really his fault. There is something structurally gone wrong with the Labour Party. Something odd is happening to people’s relationship to parties in general. What’s happening to Labour is what’s happening to left-wing parties across Europe, which have lost their working-class bases and become parties of urban intellectuals. Socialism created a strong alliance between two very different groups: working-class Labour, which was often more conservative and socialist-patriotic than people acknowledged; and the intelligentsia. And somehow, across Europe, it’s broken. The Labour politicians of the Forties and Fifties were very conscious of this tension: they often sounded quite rah-rah patriotic because they knew they had to keep their base.”

Stewart says the reason he joined the Tories and not Labour was “not a million miles away from the Red Wall story”. “It’s very difficult to think of anything I disagreed with the Labour Party on. But fundamentally, I’m more old-fashioned. I felt, dealing with Jeremy Corbyn, that I had a completely different attitude towards the Queen, the British Army, Remembrance Day parades – these things which somehow get missed in policy analysis. They’re cultural identities. With the Conservative Party, I can find lots of people who are very happy to talk about upland sheep farms in a romantic way, or about the Brigade of Guards.”

***

So what next for Rory Stewart? Could the Scottish Tories be a home for the moderate conservative? “I do love Scotland,” is all Stewart will say, looking a bit wistful; it’s the only question he won’t answer directly.

On top of the problem of getting people to believe he’s not too posh, Stewart must get the Scots to believe he is Scottish. In 2014 he oversaw the construction of a huge cairn near Gretna, intended as a symbol of the Union. A man he met there told him that he understood Stewart was a Scot, but that when he heard his voice, it was like a cat barking. “I find it very difficult dealing with people who think I sound like a cat barking,” Stewart smiles sadly. “But it doesn’t really matter. You can’t argue with my DNA.”

He was drained by the mayoral campaign, the pressure of running as an independent. He thinks a certain kind of London mayor could have called for lockdown earlier in the pandemic and “challenged the government to take them on. You can see it with Andy Burnham: mayors can play these roles.”

Is he tempted to run next time? “Yes, very. But I have to work out how. It would be easier if Sadiq is not running again.” Stewart has done the maths: he had 60 per cent name recognition and says he needs 90. “I need a scandal!” His voice goes high again, gripped by the absurd. “A big scandal!”

For now, Stewart will head off to Jordan, where he feels he’s able to “get stuff done”. He hands back my Dictaphone. He knows exactly how far up Arthur’s Seat to go for a good picture and when to turn round. Always in the politest terms: “Shall we wander back? That would be great! Thank you!”

[See also: Anthony Horowitz: “I couldn’t possibly support the Conservative Party now – it makes me feel queasy”]

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This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special