What explains Rory Stewart’s abrupt exit from the London mayoral race? The former Conservative cabinet minister and celebrated pedestrian had mounted an energetic challenge to Sadiq Khan, but today – on the eve of what would have been election day (7 May) – he has pulled out.
Stewart sets out his rationale in a piece for today’s Evening Standard. “The point about an independent campaign is it needs to be a sort of quite quick insurgency where you really build excitement over a few months,” he wrote. “But you can’t beat these huge machines if you’re pushed into a nearly two-year campaign.”
To a large extent, it really is as simple as that. Stewart’s campaign is largely run by volunteers and is reliant on his quixotic, face-to-face campaigning style for publicity. Social distancing has largely put a lid on that style of electioneering. Then there is the question of money, of which – by his own admission and that of his aides – Stewart had less than either Khan or Shaun Bailey, the official Conservative candidate.
Of course, the irony is that Stewart was the first politician with a meaningful national profile to call for a lockdown and travel restrictions in early March. He has paid for his prescience – which might in another universe have become the cornerstone of his campaign – with the viability of his run.
While he had climbed to a creditable 13 per cent in the polls with YouGov by March, Stewart was still some 11 per cent behind Bailey. With the supplementary vote system, second preferences are only redistributed to the top two candidates. Stewart’s team had been optimistic that many would break in their favour but the twin hindrances of a year’s delay – deeply unhelpful for a candidate without another public office to use as a pulpit in the meantime – and lockdown “stacked the odds” of pipping Bailey to second against him.
YouGov’s numbers also suggested, however, that Londoners were not particularly inclined to trust independent politicians any more than party politicians: only 25 per cent said they trusted non-partisan candidates, compared to 37 per cent who actively distrusted them. For all the comparisons with Ken Livingstone’s successful independent run in 2000 – not a particularly helpful yardstick anyway – success was always unlikely.
The question now is who benefits from his withdrawal. To which there are two answers: Khan, whose chances of winning on the first round have marginally increased – YouGov had him at 49 per cent, with 8 per cent of 2019 Labour voters backing Stewart. The other beneficiary is Siobhan Benita of the Liberal Democrats, who had found a large chunk of her support cannibalised by Stewart. In March she was running at a risible four per cent, around the same as she mustered as a virtually unknown independent in 2012.