The former minister and MP Rory Stewart has been so scathing recently about the government it’s easy to forget he was a contender in the last Tory leadership election in 2019. In his campaign then he reached over the heads of Conservative members to the electorate as a whole through slick social media gimmicks and videos (reminiscent of Barack Obama’s 2008 US presidential campaign). He shone in debates too; Boris Johnson was said to have skipped the last Channel 4 TV debate for fear of being grilled by Stewart, at the time the international development secretary. Stewart may not have won, but he reminded the country that it’s possible to be a Conservative without regressing to a right-wing caricature. This time around, his absence is sorely felt.
While most of this year’s contenders jostle to outdo each other with promises of tax cuts, Stewart might have given the cost-of-living crisis the attention it deserves. He already is – despite no longer being an MP, he recently suggested making public transport free to reduce demand for fossil fuels. But rather than making sensible suggestions to combat inflation and get the country’s finances in order, the likes of Liz Truss and Nadhim Zahawi seem to have forgotten about deficits and are proposing fanciful tax rates to appeal to ideological zealots on the right of the party. Back in 2019 it was left to Stewart to point out that the tax policies of his rivals were “reckless”. Today, somewhat counterintuitively, he would be a truer fiscal conservative than the current stock.
Johnson did well with voters across the country because he gave the impression of being approachable and, strangely, authentic – a lovable rogue prone to spending a bit too much on wallpaper for the missus. Now we need a candidate who is relatable in a more healthy fashion. Enter Rory Stewart: a geeky, enthusiastic terrier who wants to love and be loved. It might largely be a performance (in 2019 he maintained the endearing, baffled posh boy persona of Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, blinking at his surroundings as though surprised to find that he, an “insurgent” as he liked to describe himself, was in the leadership race at all). But his eccentric #RoryWalks series, where he travelled round the country speaking to people, received widespread acclaim for its sincerity. It was a far cry from this year’s half-baked leadership videos which have been met with derision on Twitter.
Sillier still is the absurd fixation on culture war issues among the 2022 contenders. Penny Mordaunt and Suella Braverman are fixating on how to define a woman, and candidates are chest-beating about who is the biggest Brexiteer of all – especially Liz Truss, who voted Remain in the 2016 referendum. There is no acknowledgement that there might be considerable effort required to make Brexit any sort of success. Someone like Stewart, who in 2019 commented that other candidates were turning Brexit into a “competition of machismo”, might actually tackle the systemic issues that have been revealed since the UK left the EU. The current candidates, meanwhile, live in a fantasy land. Most have suggested they would scrap the Northern Ireland protocol, meant to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, which Stewart was sensibly sceptical about three years ago.
Of course, it’s not just about policy. Britain needs someone with statesmanship, dignity and integrity, a dearth of which brought down our current Prime Minister. Stewart spotted that from the start and refused ever to serve in Johnson’s cabinet. Yet the candidates before us are largely careerists who resigned in a cluster “on a matter of personal principle” when Johnson was already sinking. Their opportunism is almost as obvious as the apparent flexibility of their principles – the current frontrunner is Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, whose wife performed considerable gymnastics with regards to avoiding tax by getting non-domiciled status, while Nadhim Zahawi, Sunak’s successor at the Treasury, is being investigated by HMRC for his tax affairs, according to the Times (Zahawi has denied any wrongdoing). Stewart has served in the armed forces and vowed to resign as prisons minister if he didn’t achieve his goal of reducing violence and drug use in jails. He cannot be said to lack probity.
Alas, were Stewart standing this time he would have no hope of making it to the run-off vote, in which two candidates will be put to Tory party members. He might, however, have been able to inject a sliver of hope for those outside the party that competent Conservative government is possible. He is the only person who could scrutinise other candidates on the issues which matter to the population beyond the 358 Tory MPs and 175,000 Tory party members. He’d be the grown-up in the room, who might just prompt the others to grow up too. In short, he’d be the only person asking the right questions.