Monthly Archives: November 2018

Rory Stewart: “The PM’s deal is better than what we’ve got at the moment. It acknowledges the referendum”


Article originally published in The House Magazine on 30 November 2018 by Kevin Schofield.

As someone who knows a thing or two about conflict resolution, Rory Stewart may well be the perfect minister to be trying to gather support for Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Let’s face it, she needs all the help she can get right now.

Before entering politics, the prisons minister famously worked in both Iraq and Afghanistan playing his part in the efforts to rebuild both countries in the wake of the US-led invasions.

“The reason that those interventions were ultimately failures was because they focused on what people thought we ought to do rather what we could do,” he tells me over a coffee in an upmarket cafe near his home in west London.

Stewart is keen to ensure that the government does not make the same mistakes as it tries to navigate its way through what it hopes will be the denouement of the Brexit process, despite the challenges presented by a bitterly-divided Parliament and a restive country.

He insists that the Prime Minister has struck “the best Brexit deal possible”, a triumph of pragmatism and moderation which he feels duty-bound to defend in the face of outspoken attacks, most of which have come from her own side. In this task, his experiences in post-war Iraq and Afghanistan are proving to be very instructive.

“I guess what I’ve learned from that bit of my life is that you have to start from where people are,” says Stewart. “There was a lot of rhetoric and there wasn’t much reality. And that’s what I feel with this debate. There are a lot of people putting out grand, almost utopian, visions of easy solutions to this and they’re not focusing on where we are and what we can do.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do and nobody can do it properly because none of us can ever know a country well enough to do this. But what we have to do as politicians – whether in Britain or Afghanistan – is open ourselves to understanding that there are millions of people with many, many different views. We have to work with the grain of that, we have to find ways of explaining and engaging to rebuild a sense of community.”

In truth, there doesn’t feel like there is much community in the UK at the moment. Opinion polls suggest the country is just as divided as it was on 23rd June, 2016, while the House of Commons only seems unified in its opposition to the withdrawal agreement Mrs May has brokered with the EU.

One of the relatively few ministers willing to go out to bat for the deal in the past week has been Stewart, who supported Remain in the referendum but now firmly believes that there can be no backsliding on the result.

He says: “There are people who want to go for denying the result of the first referendum and through some mechanism, either staying or pushing for a second referendum, remain in the EU. And there’s another group of people who want to go for a no plan, no deal Brexit. Once you’ve accepted that you don’t want either of those positions, this is the deal that you end up with.”

The MP for Penrith and The Border adds: “Even relatively moderate people in my constituency who support this deal say to me, I hope only jokingly, that they would start breaking windows if there was a second referendum.”

Stewart insists that those shouting loudly against the deal should be ignored because they were never going to like whatever the Prime Minister came back with.

He says: “If you are a hard Remainer who doesn’t want to leave the European Union, there is no deal you would ever support. And there’s a small minority who are opposing it from the no plan, no deal end of this, but they are people who have a very, very unusual vision – and I am using ‘unusual’ very politely – of trying to totally reshape the British economy and trying to create a Singapore in the Atlantic.

“I don’t think that represents mainstream British opinion. I don’t think people believe that we’re going to reinterpret ourselves as Singapore and throw out environmental protections and workers’ rights in order to compete with the world.”

Stewart even goes further than Theresa May herself by insisting the deal she has struck is even better than the status quo.

“It’s a much better deal than we’ve got at the moment because it acknowledges the result of the referendum,” he says.

“People have to take this on board – sticking with what we have at the moment is to deny the votes of 17.4 million people. That is politically unbelievably risky and dangerous.

“It is not a stable situation to try to hold a referendum, lose the referendum and try to stay in the European Union. This deal is much better than that because it delivers to Brexit voters control over immigration while, for Remainers, giving them certainty about being able to trade into Europe.

“From an economic point of view, the deal is relatively neutral and it’s all to play for. We’ll see over the medium-to-long term whether Britain can reorganise itself to take advantage of these opportunities or not. In the short-term it’s neutral economically because it’s retaining full market access on industrial goods. But politically it’s far better because it’s trying to heal a very divided and polarised country.”

His advice to the Prime Minister, should Parliament vote down the deal, is to “keep explaining” in the hope that enough people can be won over, rightly pointing out that there is no majority for any other type of agreement either.

No one can predict with any confidence what may follow in such a scenario, but it is undeniable that the rumblings about whether Theresa May is the right person to continue leading the country would begin to grow louder.

Mild-mannered, impeccably polite and with a keen sense of duty, Stewart hesitates when I ask whether he could ever envisage serving in a government led by Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, probably the two biggest beasts in the Brexiteer jungle, were either of them to succeed her in Number 10.

“I think I would find it difficult,” he concedes. “I suppose if I’ve learned anything in eight years as a politician it is saying never is maybe too extreme, but I think at the moment I would find it difficult.

“I don’t like that kind of politics. I don’t like words like ‘vassalage’ and ‘colonial status’. I don’t like the use of beautiful classical education to whip up public sentiment – it’s not my style of politics.”

He does not mention Mogg or Johnson by name, but it is fairly clear who he is talking about moments later when he says: “I think the last couple of weeks has made me feel more loyal to the Prime Minister than I ever have before and given me a sense of what an unbelievably tough job she has.

“It is grotesquely unfair to the Prime Minister that people who have no plan are attacking something that she and thousands of civil servants have just spent two-and-a-half years on. What is the basis for them thinking they can do better than this? Who do people think they are?”

Stewart’s decision to devote so much time to defending the Brexit deal is perhaps surprising given he is just nine months away from missing a self-imposed deadline of his own. In August, he pledged to reduce the level of assaults in 10 prisons across the country – and vowed to resign if he has not succeeded by next summer.

Grabbing a napkin, he quickly draws a graph showing how attacks on prison officers have increased in recent years. Even since he made his pledge three months ago, the rate has gone up. He needs to turn around that trend pretty soon or he is out of a job.

To that end, he has set up an “ops room” in the Ministry of Justice to allow him to chart progress in each of the jails. In addition, the governors of each of the establishments visited his house in Scotland in the summer and assured him they will help him hit his target.

Lessons are also being learned from how the leaders of tough inner-city schools on “how you create a calm, orderly atmosphere, how you bring discipline back to an organisation in a way that is loving and kind but also pretty firm”.

“I would expect by the end of the 12 months to see these prisons considerably cleaner, in a better state, more decent, that the inmates and officers will feel safer, and that there would be less drugs,” Stewart says.

“Why am I not depressed? I’m not depressed because I believe in my prison officers, I believe in my governors. When they said they’re not going to let me down, I believed them.”

He describes his approach as “Keep Calm And Carry On-ness”, something which he believes Britain has demonstrated in abundance throughout its history, and can again by embracing the Prime Minister’s Brexit blueprint.

“We resolved chopping kings heads off by bringing about a more moderate monarchy, we resolved our Reformation by not going with the Puritans or the Catholics but coming up with the Anglican Church. That’s our deal,” he says.

“I don’t believe in great leaders or grand ideas. I believe that change is really difficult and complicated and you want to be as ambitious as you can with the people that you’ve got. That’s why I’m a Conservative in the end. A lot of my values are centrist, but I’m a Conservative because I believe in history and tradition and our society and our institutions.”

One Westminster wag has forecast that when the starting pistol is fired in the race to succeed Theresa May, the list of hopefuls will resemble “the cast of Ben Hur”. Rory Stewart’s name will inevitably be thrown into the mix, and while he is careful not to rule himself out, he does not give the impression of a man who is desperate for the job either.

“I think the reason why I’m feeling much more comfortable in politics than I have at any other time is that I realise that what I really enjoy is arguing for things I passionately believe in,” he says.

“I’ve also realised that the job I have as prisons minister is the best job I’ve ever had in politics. It’s a less glamorous job, but it’s much more real and I’m working with people that I really admire, the prison officers, and with people I really care about, which is the prisoners. I really think I’m making progress.

“I guess maybe eight years ago or more recently I would have fantasised about being Prime Minister, but probably in doing so I would have made myself very unhappy because I would have realised how difficult it was to pull off. It’s not healthy to do that. The reason I’m happier now is that I’m focusing on what I can do.

“Why do I do this? Because I want to change Britain, I want to change prisons, I want to make this Brexit deal work, and provided I’m given an opportunity to do that I really don’t care what position I hold. Any Prime Minister that let me get on and change stuff, I’d be happy to do.”

Unashamedly moderate at a time when centrism is often a dirty word in politics, Stewart is also optimistic about Britain’s future, regardless of how bleak things may appear right now.

“We’re not good at talking about what we love about our country,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re developing Afghanistan or trying to lead Britain, you have to begin from a position of affection and love.

“If you begin from an idea that we’re all victims, this is all miserable, things have never been so bad, we’re all living in Victorian poverty, our politicians are a bunch of morons, everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, it’s no way to proceed.

“Everything has to begin with huge respect and affection and love for what people achieved before we came along, and how great our country is.”


Part of this discussion was featured on the PoliticsHome Podcast, which you can listen to here:

PoliticsHome Podcast


The last two weeks have taught me much about the difference between an MP, a Minister and a national politician. The changes, which I have helped to bring in the last eight years – signing the law to introduce a 5p tax on plastic bags, pushing superfast fibre out in Cumbria, or trying to install drug scanners in prisons – have been generally operational and concerned with improving public services. But this issue is far more sudden, intense and urgent – not a question of management, but a question of values, identity, and nationhood.

This debate is happening on the cliff-edge – if parliament repeatedly refuses the deal we will crash out of the European Union, with no economic or political arrangements in place, in just four months’ time. This is not something that can be ‘fudged’. And it will not ‘somehow be alright.’ The EU is driven by regulations and laws – often frustratingly so – so if there is no-deal, our trucks will get stuck on the continental side of the border, the automobile parts that currently cross the channel four times in the making of a car will be held up, there will be problems for law, finance, security, and shortages of basic goods. And in this mess and chaos we will harm our international reputation for stability, our currency and economy. And that is before we start trying to negotiate new trading arrangements from a position of weakness.

Some claim nevertheless to be okay with all of this. I just received a note saying: “I voted leave fully expecting a loss of 9% GDP over ten years.” Really? Our economy shrunk by 5.2 per cent in the recession – which was by far the worst year for the economy since the Second World War. The loss he is anticipating through a no-deal Brexit is almost twice that – adding more than 200 Billion pounds to our national debt – enough to pay for our entire national policing twenty times over. If he is right then instead of emerging from a decade of austerity we would probably be forced into another decade of cuts. And yet some Remainers too claim to want this scenario because they feel the misery would force people to admit their error and rejoin the EU.

Last night someone wrote to tell me that I was a ‘belittling s–t’ who should be ‘first against the wall’ because I opposed a second referendum. I opposed it because I believe it will lead to more of such violent language and politics. Over the last week I have become unable to distinguish whether the people who are threatening me – as an enemy of the people, the constitution and democracy – are extreme Remainers or extreme Brexiteers. Each side has adopted an identical vocabulary, each claims a monopoly of sense and righteousness. Trying to hold a second referendum will not solve these divisions, it will exacerbate them.

Every single member of parliament and every party, and the government itself, promised to uphold the referendum – whatever the result. Anyone holding a second referendum, aware of how unpredictable referenda are, is deliberately choosing to gamble on either no-Brexit or no-deal – and either outcome would feel significantly worse than the PM’s deal for the losing side – who would be furious in defeat.

If Remain narrowly won (and anyone who thinks they can be confident of a big victory is truly deluded) it would solve nothing. The campaign for a third referendum to leave again would begin the next day. In that scenario, Britain would limp back into Europe like someone returning to the family home half way through the divorce proceedings, with the Europeans and international investors pityingly aware that there was already a mounting campaign to take us out of the EU once more, with North against South, populist against pro-Europeans, and an illiberal splash of BNP mark 2 taking the argument into the streets under the banner of betrayal.

Which is why we now need to end this war between Brexit and Remain and find some common ground. We must acknowledge the referendum happened and that people voted by a margin of over a million for Brexit. We should respect that democratic result by leaving EU political institutions (and any talk of ever closer union or a European army), and by taking back control over immigration. But we must also reach out to and address the concerns of the more than 16 million who voted Remain. We should do that through a deal which protects our economy, and which keeps very close links to Europe, without being in the EU. A winner-takes-all approach might work in an election, but it cannot in a long-term political settlement that has to endure through successive governments.

The British have never solved our moments of violent division – the Reformation stand-offs between Evangelicals and Catholics, or the Civil War itself – by trying to provide the utopia preached by one fringe or the other. At the time, the compromises of the Anglican church, or a constitutional monarchy, seemed to the extremists as though they were the worst of all worlds. But – perhaps in part because everyone was equally unhappy – they eventually proved the source of our stability – not the worst, but the best of all worlds.

Which is why I believe that the only realistic option at this stage is to reject both a second referendum and a no-plan, no-deal Brexit, and instead look at an achievable deal to heal the country. And that deal will look an awful lot like the deal we currently have on the table.


Rory at the Taggy Man

Rory has encouraged communities to celebrate Small Business Saturday on 1 December.

Small Business Saturday is a grassroots, non-commercial campaign which champions the role and importance of small businesses. Occurring annually, on the first Saturday of December, it encourages small businesses to host events and offer discounts, and consumers to visit, support and appreciate them.

This initiative is particularly important in Penrith and The Border, in which 93% of the population is employed by businesses of less than ten people. Mr Stewart, as a consequence, is keenly interested in supporting them and was enthusiastic to support Small Business Saturday. He’ll be visiting two businesses in Wigton, to show his support and to discuss the current business climate. Rory regularly visits small businesses in Cumbria, to understand their operations and what the Government can do to support them. In the past few months alone, he has visited the Castle Fine Art Gallery, the Taggy Man, G&S Specialist Timber and many others.

Commenting on his plans, Rory said “Small Business Saturday is a fantastic initiative, playing a crucial role in championing these enterprises. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and the heart of our high streets. As they face new pressures, we need to come together as communities to support them and, this Saturday, I would like to encourage everybody to participate”.


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Christiane Amanpour interviewed Rory on CNN this evening, on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, her recent appearance in the House of Commons and its likelihood of being accepted by Parliament. Watch it here:


Rory Stewart MP at Eden Insulation

Rory has paid tribute to Eden Insulation following a recent visit.

Eden Insulation Ltd. is a specialist timber frame factory in Appleby-in-Westmorland, which constructs insulated, airtight products, which make buildings more energy efficient. The company custom makes frames to the exact specifications of architectural plans, using airtightness materials, which aid heat retention and have even secured coveted Passivhaus certification. Businesses and homes, in Cumbria and across the country, have commissioned frames from Eden Insulation, in recognition of their quality and effectiveness.

Mr Stewart, having heard about the company, was eager to visit in order to learn more. Stephen Gurney, the Managing Director, met Rory and guided him around their facilities, explaining Eden Insulation’s work, using models of the frames and a time lapse video of the construction of a three storey property. He then took Rory to an onsite factory, where much of the specialist work is done. The two then had a wide ranging conversation about the business and the current political climate, including a discussion on Brexit.

Leaving Eden Insulation, Rory said “This was a fantastic and fascinating visit to one of the latest Cumbrian success stories. Businesses such as Eden Insulation are testament to the skills and innovation that define the Cumbrian economy, and deserve our thanks and support. People like Stephen are the backbone of our local economy and I look forward to reading of Eden Insulation’s many successes in the years to come”.


Rory Stewart MP at Castle Fine Art Gallery

Rory visited the Castle Fine Art Gallery and Shop to hear an update on its operations and tour its new exhibition – and indeed to commission a drawing of his mother’s house.

The Castle Fine Art Gallery opened in August with the aim of selecting and showcasing regional artists through monthly exhibitions. Though Rory was unable to attend the opening, he tweeted his support for the gallery and was eager to visit at the earliest opportunity. Rory is a strong supporter of the arts in Cumbria and, in the past months, has visited and praised many such exhibitions, highlighting both their role in the community and their capacity to attract tourism.

As a consequence, Rory looked around the Castle Fine Art Gallery and Shop with a great deal of interest, asking Mark Hilsden, who guided him round, about business, visitor numbers and long term goals, and then commissioned Mark to draw his mother’s house. The current exhibition showcases some of Mark’s art and Mr Stewart expressed his appreciation for what he had seen, stopping to admire many pieces.

Commenting on his visit, Rory said, “I was delighted when the Castle Fine Art Gallery opened in Appleby and it was a very great pleasure to visit it for the first time. In addition to being impressed with what Mark and Phil have done with the place, I was very struck by the quality of the artwork displayed. We are lucky to have such a vibrant art scene in Penrith and The Border and I would very much recommend a visit to the Castle Fine Art Gallery to all of those who haven’t been”.


Rory appeared on BBC News this evening to discuss Brexit, the Prime Minister’s Deal and the chances of getting it through Parliament. Watch it here:

He also appeared on ‘Westminster Hour’, which you can watch here:

He also appeared on LBC with Tom Swarbrick:

And BBC World News:


Rory was interviewed on Channel 4 News this evening by Jon Snow on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and the political declaration published today. Watch it here:


Rory Stewart MP At Watermillock Village Hall

Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, gave a passionate talk on the ‘Middleland’ to a full house at Watermillock Village Hall, in support of the fundraising efforts to secure the building’s future.

Watermillock Village Hall was built in 1926 and has been run by dedicated volunteers ever since. The Hall, which is made up of a large function room with a stage, reading room, and modern kitchen, is a licenced facility and can accommodate up to 120 people. The venue is used by a variety of groups and holds regular activity sessions. Mr Stewart’s talk was the first in a series of events run by the Village Hall committee in order to raise money to maintain the building’s exterior. The committee are looking at Grant funding opportunities to develop the building with a possible extension and re-landscaping. The grant will also allow for new guttering and painting the exterior of the building.

As a keen walker with a passion for Hadrian’s Wall and its history, Mr Stewart recounted the history of ‘The Middleland’, from the time before the arrival of the Romans and Hadrian’s Wall, when this area was a country with its own kings, languages and traditions extending from the firth of Forth in the north to the Humber river in the South. Mr Stewart went on to vividly describe the changes brought by the arrival of the Romans, who brought many diverse cultures, which had a significant impact upon the local area. Rory finished his talk with a question and answer session and happily supported the raffle by giving a signed copy of his book ‘The Marches’ as a prize.

After the event, he commented ‘It is truly wonderful to see so many people working together to keep their community alive. I am honoured to have been asked to launch this series of events, and thrilled the event raised over £450. I hope that this facility continues to go from strength to strength”.

If you would like to book any of the facilities at Watermillock the details can be found on