4 October 2019

For Rory Stewart, the road south was the only one open

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Penrith and the Border suited Rory Stewart and not just because England’s largest constituency has been represented by Scotsmen since 1955. Stewart followed David Maclean in the seat, who in turn succeeded Willie Whitelaw. Being a farming constituency, and a sheep-farming one at that, it suited a parliamentarian with a penchant for the hills and a deep-rooted, principled, aversion to a no deal Brexit that risks being ruinous for upland farmers all across the United Kingdom.

But Stewart has come to the conclusion – the sorry conclusion, I fancy – that his political ambitions can no longer be served in the Borderlands. This will, I suspect, be a matter of regret for many of his constituents. More to the point, he has discovered that his ambitions cannot be advanced from inside the Conservative and Unionist party and this, I further suspect, is a quiet sorrow that is felt well beyond the old west march of the Anglo-Scottish frontier.

Stewart’s decision to abandon any hope he might have had of holding Penrith and the Border as an independent and, instead, launch a bid to replace Sadiq Khan as mayor of London is very Stewartian. That is to say, it combines a measure of eccentricity with considerable, even lofty, ambition. It feels a telling moment, too. As the wags have it, he hasn’t left the Conservative Party so much as the Conservative Party has left him.

For if there is no place in the Tory party for Rory Stewart or Ken Clarke or Nicholas Soames or any of the other 21 MPs who had the party whip removed for the sin of opposition a breakneck, no deal, Brexit then the Tory party as it used to be has ceased to exist. Boris Johnson may talk about being a One Nation Tory of the old school but his signature act as leader has been to expel many of the most prominent One Nation Tories in the country. By your actions are you known, not by your self-serving rhetoric. And the truth of the matter is that Johnson is held hostage by the Brexit Party and the overwhelming, crippling, need to get any kind of Brexit done at any kind of cost. That, not the detail, is all that counts and the consequences can be dealt with later. This is neither prudent nor moderate government.

Even so, it has been quite a journey. Journalists have a weakness for the novel, the odd, the new, and the different. So Stewart’s quixotic campaign for the Tory leadership was a form of catnip. Extraordinarily, he came across as the most normal candidate in a decidedly abnormal contest. This despite being the candidate with the most extraordinary biography and, sometimes, the most charmingly odd platform. As a rule, we are not accustomed to hearing would-be leaders of the Conservative party talk about the importance of “love” as a political virtue.

Of course he flamed out and of course he fell to earth even more swiftly than he had risen, but there was something there, nonetheless. Something which hinted at something fresh and, above all, something which nodded towards the idea of a different kind of politics. At least for a while. Given the sourness of the political mood, this was not nothing.

But once Johnson decided there was no place in the party for the likes of Stewart he had a choice to make. He could take the M6 north to his native land or south to the capital. There was, you see, a mischievous suggestion Stewart might return to Scotland and have a crack at finishing the job begun by Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Tories. In idle moments of wistful wishful thinking some Scottish Tories certainly hoped so. But the idea was, I think, always a non-runner for any number of reasons. Scotland is home but Stewart’s Scotland is not quite the Scotland that must be won to win elections.

And so the road south was the only one open. Hence this flit to London where, for some, the need for a new kind of politics may seem less pressing than elsewhere in the realm. If you feel British politics is broken and that it has been broken by extreme partisanship across the board then London – diverse, polyglot, moderate, London – might not be the first place you’d go to fix it.

Maybe so, though it would also seem useful for the capital to have a credible contest for the mayoralty and since this will not be provided by Shaun Bailey, the official Conservative candidate, it might just be something Stewart can offer. That has a value in itself even if it is scarcely a risk-free enterprise.

The risk, of course, is failure and a failure that would leave Stewart with nowhere new to go. A political career once brimful of promise would then risk petering out in a somewhat melancholy fashion. Rory would have walked to the end of the road only to discover there was nothing there at all.

And yet there may be opportunity, too. Where else but London offers a high-profile role that’s unconstrained by the traditional boundaries of party-based orthodoxy? Where else but London might allow, right now, in this moment, for a Macronesque politics of “both/and” rather than “either/or”? That, I suspect, is the bet Stewart is making and if it is one that risks being tinged with vaingloriousness that’s an inherent, inescapable, part of politics too. Normal people don’t wish to do these things and at a certain level all politicians are unusual people.

The knock on Stewart is that he is a collector of interesting – sometimes extravagantly interesting – things rather more than of concrete achievements. There is some truth in this; there is a restless quality to Stewart’s career and perhaps a questing one too. The next challenge is always the interesting one. But at least he chooses interesting ones and while that may not be enough in the present climate there are many worse things than that.

He probably won’t win, but then there has always been a Jacobite quality to Stewart’s choices and the right kind of failure has compensations denied the wrong kind of victory. And what if he were somehow to win? Why, then all kinds of different opportunities might open up and any number of futures might seem possible. It might be a dream and a fanciful one at that but in the meantime there are serious and practical things to be done and if it takes a dreamer to pursue these things then so be it.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator