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20 under 40: Rory Stewart

Age: 38
Conservative, Penrith and The Border

On 5 September, the Prime Minister rose in the House of Commons to make a statement on the situation in Libya. The Libyan people have "liberated their country", David Cameron said, despite the dire warnings of "cynics" who had predicted stalemate, or worse. Among the cynics was a member of his own party, Rory Stewart, who in March, just as Britain was setting off on its Libyan adventure, had warned against the temptations of perpetual intervention. Now, with Colonel Gaddafi's fate apparently sealed, Stewart asked Cameron if he would do all he could to "restrain the irresistible desire of the international community to micromanage and over-intervene? We should remember that in this kind of intervention, less is more."

Cameron responded tartly that Stewart had spoken with "considerable knowledge, not least because, rather against my will, he spent two days last week in Tripoli". The following day, a columnist in the Daily Mail wondered if the relationship between the PM and Stewart - "known as 'Florence of Belgravia' for his nomadic desert treks" - was beginning to sour.

It is a measure of Stewart's standing as a new MP that there should be a relationship to sour at all. He was elected to his rural Cumbrian constituency in May 2010, having decided to look for a seat only the previous year while serving as director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. Not for him the usual slog through the Conservative Research Department and stints as a special adviser. (His campaigning style was unconventional, too: on election day, rather than tear round the constituency trying to "get the vote out", he stood on a tractor trailer with a megaphone and quoted from T S Eliot's Four Quartets.)

Save for the passage from the Dragon School via Eton to Balliol College, Oxford, his CV is entirely sui generis. After university he joined the Foreign Office, from where he had postings to Indonesia and Montenegro. In 2000, he left the Foreign Office with the intention of walking round the world. (Today, he likes to visit his constituents on foot, tramping up hills wearing a pair of old boots and a Puffa jacket that saw service in the Hindu Kush.)

Stewart cut short his circumnavigation after passing through Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Afghanistan, though he saw enough to write a book about the experience, The Places In Between, that made it on to the New York Times bestsellers list. In 2003, just turned 30, he went back into public service as the deputy governor of Maysan Province in southern Iraq.

It was in Iraq, and later back in Afghanistan, that Stewart honed an account of the limits of foreign intervention that threatens to put him at odds with his leader. Running an arts charity in Kabul, he has said, made him a "Burkean conservative", sceptical about the powers of government to bring about substantial change and vigilant against the depredations of bureaucracy. In a nod to the Tories' localism agenda, he lists his political interests in Hansard as including "local democracy [and] rural affairs", as well as foreign policy.

He once asked a newspaper interviewer, "Do you think I should be prime minister?" Some observers think him too hyperactive to stay in politics for the long haul: he managed five years at the Foreign Office, just two at Harvard. For the moment, Stewart is happy to leave his long-term intentions obscure, yet there is little doubt that he sees himself as fitted for high office - should the opportunity arise.

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Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister