Rory appeared on ‘Pienaar’s Politics’ with John Pienaar, Jay Rayner and other guests, to discuss Brexit and the current political situation. Listen here:
Rory, in his capacity as Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, answered Justice Questions today, with David Gauke, Edward Argar, and Lucy Frazer. Watch it here:
On l’a attrapé entre deux psychodrames du Brexit, un vote crucial et un autre décisif. On l’a coincé entre une table couverte de Lego, un petit bonhomme disant tout juste «papa» et un assistant parlementaire chargé de photocopier des dizaines de pages. Rory Stewart est un marcheur au long cours, mais on l’a surtout vu courir. Après une rencontre un peu hâtive chez lui, au cœur de South Kensington, le chic quartier français de Londres, il a proposé de poursuivre l’entretien dans un taxi. Le chauffeur n’allait pas assez vite, alors on est descendus en route pour attraper le métro. Deux stations et trois questions plus tard, sa mince silhouette dégingandée dévorait les marches quatre à quatre pour rejoindre au plus vite la Chambre des Communes, où l’attendait «un très important débat».
On n’a pas eu le temps de lui en demander l’objet. On sait juste qu’il n’a pas à faire un discours sur les hérissons. Celui-là, il l’avait déjà prononcé, en 2015. D’abord en latin, puis en citant Aristote, Erasmus et Shakespeare, il avait disserté magnifiquement sur les hérissons, expliquant que c’était la première fois que le sujet était évoqué au Parlement depuis 1566 et laissant ses collègues députés scotchés sur leurs banquettes de cuir vert. Il était alors secrétaire d’Etat à l’Environnement. A 46 ans, il est aujourd’hui ministre des Prisons et n’a pas encore, à notre connaissance, discouru sur la vie du cafard.
Erudit, charmant, polyglotte et aventurier dans l’âme, Rory Stewart, adepte du «remain», détonne un peu à Westminster. Sur le papier, il dispose de tous les attributs du parfait parlementaire, au point que certains l’imaginent en futur Premier ministre. Fils de diplomate devenu diplomate lui-même, élevé dans les meilleurs pensionnats anglais, dont le très sélect Eton, puis étudiant à Oxford, enseignant à Harvard, sans oublier un détour par l’armée et un job de tuteur pour les jeunes princes William et Harry, il a tout du pur produit de l’establishment britannique. Il a été gouverneur adjoint de la coalition en Irak en 2003, en poste dans les Balkans, en Afghanistan, avant de devenir député conservateur de la circonscription de Penrith and The Border, à la frontière entre l’Angleterre et l’Ecosse. C’était écrit, il dit avoir «toujours vécu sur une frontière». Le domaine familial des Stewart est en Ecosse, mais en équilibre, entre les Highlands et les Lowlands, son père, Brian, grand diplomate et ancien espion en chef de Sa Majesté était écossais, sa mère, Sally, anglaise. «L’Afghanistan lui-même est une immense frontière entre l’Inde et l’Iran», dit-il. Il est né à Hongkong, alors encore colonie britannique, frontalière de la Chine, la grande passion de la vie de son père. Il a une sœur plus jeune de quatre ans, Fiona, trisomique, qui lui a appris «qu’il existe beaucoup de manières différentes d’être».
En 2002, il part à pied et traverse seul l’Afghanistan d’Herat à Kaboul pendant trente-deux jours, un voyage dont il tirera un livre, En Afghanistan, énorme succès au Royaume-Uni et aux Etats-Unis. «Ma vie a été transformée par cette marche, en tant que diplomate, ça m’a montré le gouffre entre la réalité des villages et celle de la diplomatie. Ça a été le fondement de ma réflexion.» Il en a gardé un certain scepticisme vis-à-vis de la doctrine de l’interventionnisme. «On a échoué en Afghanistan, dans les Balkans. Je me suis dit peut-être qu’en Irak on tirerait les leçons du passé, mais non, pas vraiment.» Il parle du Sud-Soudan, qu’il connaît bien. «Si vous lisez les rapports, de l’ONU, de la Banque mondiale, vous lisez “gouvernance, responsabilité, durabilité” mais pas les mentions des tribus nuer et dinka et leur dispute ancestrale autour du bétail, pourtant le nœud du problème.»
De ses aventures, il a aussi tiré le constat «qu’il faut toujours parler à tout le monde». C’est ici qu’il détonne au sein d’un Parlement profondément polarisé. Il s’étonne de son pays «divisé en deux, en désaccord de manière tellement passionnelle, et si peu prêt à faire des compromis fondamentaux». Pourtant, poursuit-il, «une démocratie mature devrait montrer une volonté de compromis, qui n’est pas liée à une agilité intellectuelle, mais vient plus d’une empathie spirituelle». On lui demande si sa Première ministre, Theresa May, est dotée de cette «empathie spirituelle», il esquive gentiment.
En 2011, il est parti marcher le long du mur d’Hadrien, une autre «frontière», entre l’Ecosse et l’Angleterre. Cette fois-là, il n’était pas seul mais accompagné de son père, à l’aube de sa neuvième décennie. Il en a tiré un autre livre, les Marches,publié ce mois-ci chez Gallimard. Il est parti avec l’idée de «voir et sentir la texture du sol, ce qui se passe chez les gens, dans leur vie, derrière les portes des maisons, loin, tellement loin de Westminster». Pour son père, dit-il avec autodérision,«c’était sans doute plus une occasion de passer un peu de temps avec son fils». Tendrement, ils s’appellent respectivement «daddy» et «darling». Le livre, porté par un profond lyrisme, parle de ce qui construit ou pas une identité, un rapport à la terre. Et constate que, parfois, on s’y perd. «En Afghanistan, c’était plus facile de décrire la texture d’un village. Au Royaume-Uni, c’est bien plus compliqué, c’est une population atomisée, où le sens de la terre, de la tradition, s’est un peu perdu dans ce monde en mouvement constant.» Sa prescience, face aux tourments de l’âme britannique empêtrée ces trois dernières années dans une violente crise d’identité, est frappante. Le livre est sorti en anglais en 2016, l’année du référendum sur le Brexit. Il n’a rien à voir avec et pourtant, il dit beaucoup des déchirements à venir.
En 2015, son père s’est éteint dans ses bras, en dépit de ses efforts pour essayer de le ranimer. L’année précédente, il avait mis au monde son premier fils, l’ambulance n’était pas arrivée assez vite. En quelques mois, la vie et la mort, à vif entre ses mains. Depuis, il a eu un autre fils avec sa femme, Shoshana, une Américaine rencontrée en Afghanistan lorsqu’ils travaillaient ensemble dans une fondation créée sous l’égide du prince Charles pour préserver le vieux centre de Kaboul et aider la population locale. Il parle encore de son père. «Son héritage n’était pas quelque grande vision philosophique ou politique, mais un enjouement et un ravissement à agir.» Dans la rame de métro, on lui demande si le sac de nœuds du Brexit ne lui donne pas envie de s’enfuir très loin et d’aller marcher seul. Il répond sans réfléchir et avec un regard qui s’évade. «Oh oui ! Absolument !» Puis il nous adresse ce large sourire qui lui donne l’air d’un enfant de 8 ans et part en courant vers Westminster.
1973 Naissance à Hongkong.
2003 Gouverneur adjoint de la coalition en Irak.
2011 Marche avec son père le long du mur d’Hadrien.
Avril 2019 Les Marches (Gallimard).
Rory met with young farmers who have benefited from The Farmer Network’s Business Support Programme.
Mr Stewart met with The Farmer Network’s Kate Gascoyne and farmers Georgia Smith, Lorna Craig and Mark Curr at the latter’s family farm at Newbiggin-on-Lune where lambing was in full swing.
The Farmer Network has been running a Business Support Programme for disadvantaged young people in Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales, who want to get a start in a farming-related business, for seven years. Eligible young people are offered a “package” of support involving a three-day basic business course, one-to-one business advice, access to grants of up to £4,000 and loans of up to £25,000. The programme is delivered using local farming experience and knowledge to ensure the support is practical, hard-headed and realistic.
The farmers met with Rory to explain what a difference The Farmer Network’s Business Support Programme had made to their lives – giving them the confidence, knowledge and support to set up or expand their own businesses. Mark Curr was given a loan to buy ewes and an Electronic Identification (EID) scanner, to allow him to generate extra income by scanning sheep for other farmers. Georgia, of Ravenstonedale, was on the programme in 2016 and received a grant to test the market and a loan to set up a goat-meat producing and retailing business, which is going from strength to strength. Lorna Craig, of Brough, completed the business course last year and has had advice on a calf and stirk rearing enterprise.
Since it started in 2012, 103 young people have completed the programme’s business course; 101 have been given business advice and 35 have received loans, ranging from £4,000 to £25,000. Grants of over £80,000 have also been given for training, market investigation or legal advice.
So far the programme has so far been funded by a combination of The Prince’s Countryside Fund, which covered the costs of administration and the business course, and the Prince’s Trust, which funded the loans, grants and one-to-one business advice. This funding is due to end in 2019 but the programme is still attracting new young people. The Farmer Network is currently looking for new sponsors and funding partners.
After the meeting, Mr Stewart said: “I was delighted to meet Mark, Georgia and Lorna and was impressed to see how they had really taken advantage of the Business Support Programme. And I’m very grateful to Mark for taking time out of his busy lambing schedule to host the meeting.
“It can be very difficult for young people to get a start in this industry but it is vital to agriculture’s future that they do. It’s brilliant to see how The Farmer Network, Prince’s Trust and The Prince’s Countryside Trust have been able to support these young people, giving them access to salient advice and funding that can make all the difference to their lives.”
Article first published in The Times by Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson, 13 April 2019
Every Sunday night, Rory Stewart draws a multi-coloured flow chart mapping out the possible Brexit scenarios. “It begins with six or seven immediate paths but then each one divides and subdivides,” he explains. “You have to hold in your head 25 outcomes and if you are me all bar two or three are horrendous.” The prisons minister, who was an officer in the Black Watch, a diplomat in the Balkans, deputy governor of an Iraqi province and a Harvard professor, and also set up a charity in Afghanistan and advised Barack Obama before becoming Conservative MP for Penrith & the Border, is using all his negotiating skills to persuade colleagues to look beyond the immediate Brexit crisis.
“It’s an American military thing,” he says. “Most people don’t want to think about the bad stuff that might happen, they just want to get through today. The danger is that people are attracted to what feel like radical, simple answers.”
Mr Stewart, who has been one of the staunchest defenders of Theresa May’s deal, is not a traditional career politician. Brad Pitt once bought the rights to his life story, with Orlando Bloom lined up to play the leading role. “I wanted Danny DeVito,” the diminutive MP laughs. The author of two bestselling books, including an account of his 6,000-mile walk across Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, he has studied 11 languages although he admits he has forgotten “almost all” of his Serbo-Croat, Nepali and Urdu. An adventurer, whose father was a spy, his hero is Lawrence of Arabia and he once worked as a tutor for Prince William and Prince Harry and even delivered his first son himself.
Now Mr Stewart is talked of as a possible Tory leader. Unlike some of his colleagues he doesn’t obfuscate when we ask him about this. “There’s only any point somebody like me standing for the leadership if I can win. I wouldn’t do it as an academic exercise, I’d do it because of the cause,” he says. “The question is finding a standard bearer for the cause of the middle ground of British politics. . . It could be me.”
His priority is to ensure that the Commons uses the six-month Brexit delay, granted by the EU this week, to agree a deal. He worries that if the sense of urgency goes “the impatience of Leavers will grow” and they will become determined to crash out. “No-deal isn’t a destination it is a failure to reach a destination,” he insists. Revoking Article 50 or calling another referendum would be just as damaging. “Brexit is only a symptom of the polarisation of British politics, the danger that we are going to follow a US-European path to increasingly right-wing and left-wing politics.”
Having negotiated in war zones, Mr Stewart argues that a good outcome would be one “where everybody is equally unhappy” and there may need to be a mediator to broker peace. “I would be interested in bringing the Archbishop of Canterbury into the Conservative-Labour talks,” he says. “The country needs leaders who can compromise. We ended the last civil war with this fudge called a constitutional monarchy, we ended the reformation with a fudge called the Anglican Church. That’s what it means to be British, so we end this one with a soft Brexit deal.”
For the Tory party, the minister argues, that is also politically essential. “The only way of getting young voters back and getting back the nearly four out of ten Conservatives who voted remain is by a very moderate thing, there is no future in trying to evoke the demons of resentment and fantasy on the no-deal side because it will go wrong.”
Having consistently backed the prime minister’s deal, Mr Stewart, 46, supported the customs union option in the indicative votes. “I believe in compromise and that is the red line I would cross,” he explains. Liam Fox describes that outcome as the “worst of all worlds” because it would prevent Britain striking its own trade deals. “Respectfully I would disagree,” he says. “Nobody thinks that having external tariffs with the European Union or future trade deals being negotiated by the EU is the same as being in the EU. . . This trade thing is being exaggerated, it is quite a niche concern, we have through the EU already existing signatory trade deals with 78 countries. . . I am not sure there are many more trade deals to be done.”
This is not what the prime minister says, but he won’t criticise his boss. “I feel really proud of her. I think she’s doing a really tough job . . . I mind that when she makes a slightly disobliging comment about MPs everybody gets hypersensitive, but they all think it’s fine to slag her off.” The Brexiteers are already calling on Mrs May to stand down but the prisons minister insists she should “stay as long as she wants to stay”.
If that means fighting the European elections in May “you are into the world of lesser evils”, he says. The European Research Group cannot be allowed to push the prime minister around. “I’d be very sorry to lose them, I think they have so much to offer, [but] Conservatives are about loving our country and [that means] embracing the whole country and we can’t be sectarian.”
It would in his view be a huge mistake to embark on a leadership contest before the Europe question is resolved. “An unresolved Brexit with the siren call of this very seductive but ultimately very uncertain shaky thing called ‘no deal’ out there, it’s not what you want to do.”
This week Tom Tugendhat, another former army officer, said there should be a “new generation” candidate but ruled himself out. Why is Mr Stewart still considering running? “I don’t think it matters what their generation is or if they are in the cabinet, it has to be somebody who can stand for the centre ground of British politics and Tory values,” he says. The Old Etonian admits his education could work against him. “David Cameron is not awfully popular and he’s an Old Etonian. I think it is a disadvantage for a leadership candidate to be an old Etonian, I don’t think it’s an impossible one to overcome.” The next Tory leader needs to be “energetically optimistic but realistic”, he says. Floating voters want somebody who is going to “transform air quality in London, deliver 5G broadband mobile coverage throughout the country. . . love Remainers as well as Brexiteers”.
It sounds like a personal manifesto. Could he do it? “It’s difficult for me to answer that,” he replies. “I’ve been outside politics for so much of my life. Inspiring MPs is quite different.” The politicians who choose the final short list of two that is put to party members are “quite cautious, sceptical and tribal”, he says. “I think if by some miracle somebody like me were put in front of the associations we would have a chance. . . I believe that you can convince our party members that the future of our party lies in pragmatism, the middle ground.”
The attempts to deselect moderate Tories including his boss David Gauke, the justice secretary, are in his view “heartbreaking”. In Afghanistan he became weary of the liberal interventionists and their big ideas and he feels the same about the Brexit revolutionaries who favour creative destruction. “You have to begin the way things are, loving Britain in all its weirdness and facing it unflinchingly. I hate ideology, I love ambition,” he says.
Parliament needs to become more serious. “The signs of real patriotism and real greatness is seriousness and. . . I’m worried in our country we have lost our sense of seriousness.”
He worked with Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office. “The question with Boris is, ‘Is the optimism grounded in reality?’ He’s a wonderful lyricist and rhetorician, but I struggled to get him interested in the steps of the journey from A to B. Seriousness . . . requires moral principles. If you read his articles he tends not to talk much about morality, he’s a pagan poet, he reminds me not of a Roman senator, he reminds me more of Catullus.”
Mr Stewart would find staying in a Tory party with a new leader who advocated a no-deal Brexit deeply worrying. “I think a no-deal Tory party saying goodbye to the Remain voters in the Conservative Party, saying goodbye to young people, saying goodbye to the City and goodbye to Scotland is a bad thing. It would feel like Ukip.”
A few years ago he described children as “the opium of the masses”. Now he has two of his own, aged four and two, he admits he is “addicted to them like everybody else”. He spends time “building very complicated Lego Ninjago ships and temples”. But “the thing that breaks my heart most in society is the poor elderly. I grew up in Asia, one of the things I love about Asia is the deference to the old.”
His father was a huge influence on him. “He was a very old-fashioned figure, born in 1922, he fought in the Second World War, he was a colonial officer in Malaya, he hated politicians and adored the Queen. He took me fencing in Hyde Park every morning and laid out Napoleonic battles on the nursery floor, singing me Gilbert and Sullivan in the shower. On a Sunday morning when we lived in Kuala Lumpur he would wake me up at 6am, we would go out and build rafts and float down jungle streams with bacon and egg sandwiches.”
Mr Stewart admits he has been “very lucky” but he thinks politics needs a more positive narrative. “We’re better off than our parents, we’re living longer, we’re better educated, we’re travelling more. It has to be a feeling of pride in Britain.”
Born January 3, 1973
Educated Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford
Career Served briefly in the Black Watch and then joined the Foreign Office, working as a diplomat in Indonesia and Montenegro. From 2000 to 2002 he walked across Pakistan, Iran, Nepal, India and Afghanistan and wrote The Places in Between. After the invasion of Iraq he became deputy governor of Maysan province. He became professor of human rights at Harvard in 2008. Elected MP for Penrith & the Border in 2010, his government jobs included a spell in the Foreign Office before he became prisons minister last year.
Family Married to Shoshana with two sons. He delivered their first child himself at home in Cumbria.
Orlando Bloom or Eddie Redmayne?Danny DeVito
Farsi or French?Farsi
Afghan village or Westminster village?Afghan village
Homeland or Killing Eve?Homeland
Lawrence of Arabia or Winston Churchill?Lawrence
Eton mess or chocolate brownie?Bacon and eggs
Romantic or revolutionary?Romantic
Article first published in Prospect by Tom Clark on 12 April 2019.
Shortly before the referendum, I recall reading Matthew Parris in the Times arguing that a Leave vote would “destroy” moderate conservatism in this country. At the time, this struck me as columnist’s hyperbole. This week, however, I met with prisons minister, one-nation Tory and the unlikely star salesman for Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Rory Stewart, and found him gripped with a very real fear that something like the Parris prediction could soon come to pass.
Gently spoken, measured yet precise, Stewart arrived in parliament in 2010 with a CV that was more Class of 1890 than 1990: Eton, Black Watch, Tutor to the Royal Princes, Oxford, Foreign Office, adventuring and travel writing in Afghanistan and then running provinces in occupied Iraq, all before he was much over 30. As a youngster he had supported Labour, but moved over to the Tories, he says, because of the doctrinaire way that Blair and even Brown talked about the Bush-era wars: “their neo-conservatism made me a Conservative… it was seeing how far their rhetoric was from the reality…”
That might seem peculiar given the uncritical pro-American belligerence of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard in these years, but Stewart is right to identify a much older Tory tradition than defines itself by dealing in practicalities, not abstractions, and above all else—in speech and deed—facing the facts unflinchingly, and, as he puts it, “dealing with the world as it is.”
This loyal minister openly worries that even mainstream Tories could soon lapse into a “no deal, never deal” stance which could finally kill off this tradition for good. In the looming leadership election, which he does not rule out running in, he fears ordinarily pragmatic cabinet ministers could compete by advocating crashing out, on the assumption that after a bump and a bounceback we “could get back to being a moderate, centre-right party.” It won’t work though, he warns, because a no deal Brexit would not only be “a statement about your attitude to economics, rural communities, manufacturing industry, the Union,” it would also be “a statement about your attitude to reality.” The attitude the Tories are flirting with isn’t, he says, Conservative at all: “the mindset is ‘Trump’.”
Fittingly, I end up interviewing the greatest walker in parliament—he’s been known to get up before dawn to walk between Oxford and London in a day—on the move. He shuns a ministerial car, he tells me, not out of puritanism but because he can’t stand London traffic. Sensible enough. But it means I’m left scribbling notes darting along Commons corridors, Underground tunnels, then on District and Victoria line carriages, and in the ticket office at Euston. With some interviewees, the conversation and the notes would have been extremely scrappy as a result, but not with Stewart. Perhaps because clarity with language is almost an obsession, something he sees as inseparable from his politics.
Orwell dedicates the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier to turning fire on cranky, sloganeering Marxists who can’t connect with the real working class and their problems, because they prefer playing “the pea-and-thimble trick with those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis and synthesis.” Stewart vents a very similar frustration about bullshit in contemporary politics, but worries that it now blights the Right as much as the Left. Although by temperament the opposite of a rager, he comes close to fury as he lists the many poisonous consequences he sees flowing from political language that doesn’t connect with practical realities. Too few thinktanks and journalists, he says, have a real idea of what policy is: “if only we did it the way Australia did it… the way Norway did it …” or would embrace some other shiny new “bright idea.”
On his own prison beat, his starting point is the English system as it actually is, “the real prisoner, the real officer, the real buildings,” the “sheets and blankets that have to be delivered.” He likes to identify things that should be done but aren’t, like writing good guidance for officers about “how you search a cell, how you get the sniffer dogs to the right place, that’s what really what makes a difference.” But the culture of government “hates this”: it wants novelty and buzzwords. He sees this going on right across Whitehall. In Dfid’s 400-page report on the bloodshed in South Sudan, he says the names of the ‘Dinker’ and ‘Nuer’ tribes do not crop up, nor do the ‘oxen’ they’ve been slaughtering each other over; and the ‘guns’ with which the killing is done are only mentioned once: “That’s what matters: but nobody talks about.” By contrast, “the word ‘governance’ appears 140 times, ‘accountability’ 180 times, sustainability 190 times… you know the person you are writing about controls a militia and has presided over a massacre, but you are writing a document saying he is going to guarantee the ‘equitable distribution of resources down to the lowest provincial level with zero-tolerance towards public corruption’…”
Coming back to Brexit, through buzzwords about sovereignty and independent trade policies, he now sees many a Conservative being “pacified by a clever line.” Although he is quoting Auden here, which will make him a bit too “clever” for some tastes himself, he brims with passion about the peril of being bewitched by warm words about ‘just getting out’ or ‘simply finding our own way in the world.’ When others—as David Davis did on Thursday—say no deal is “perfectly manageable” and “can be done,” Stewart answers the reassuring generalities with granular and alarming specifics.
“I say to no deal man,” he says gearing up, “’How about my dairy farmer?’ And they say, ‘well over the medium term it will all adjust: the currency will move, structures will shift, tariffs will adjust, he will find another job’… So I have to say, ‘this is Thirsk Milk. It has a £4.5m contract to sell milk to the continent. My farmer, Steve… has got 65 cows. He has been promised by Thirsk Milk that they will buy his milk at 26p a litre; his costs of production are 18p … In the event of a no deal Brexit, the tariffs go up: 40 per cent… meanwhile liquid milk is flowing in [to the continent] from Ireland at zero tariff… Thirsk Milk factory’s production line stops… Steve has the milk on his farm, 6,000 litres every day… he can only hold it for 24 hours… cows need to be milked… he’s got to get rid of it… price falls… 16p, 14p… below the cost of production… but Steve is in debt to the Cumberland building society. He’s got to make his interest payments. He makes the very difficult decision to sell his cows… but the debts are not covered by the sale of his cows… Steve sells his farm… somebody buys it as a second home… this is repeated right the way across Cumbria… Steve is 46 years old, his family have been farmers for nine or 10 generations, he’s the governor of the local school, his kids are in the local school, which has only got 15 people in it. But he’s gone, all the farms and families in the valley are gone, they’re not coming back. And what’s he going to do? Where’s he going to go? You talk about macroeconomic readjustment, I’m talking about his whole life, his land gone, his cows gone, that he’s bred, his own herd. And with that the landscape goes, returns to wilderness, the dry stone walls go.’”
Lest I think that such chilling tales only apply in rural constituencies such as Stewart’s in Penrith, he adds at the end “and I could tell exactly the same story about the guy who works at the Rolls-Royce factory in the west midlands.”
Surely, I venture, if it’s really going to be that bad, plenty of senior Conservatives will in the end rally to speak up against it. But Stewart isn’t confident. There is, he says, an “absolutism” creeping into the rhetoric, that makes people “embarrassed” to talk about the compromises than any negotiated Brexit involves. His willingness to acknowledge has become rare. Which is why he now finds himself so regularly put up on TV to explain, though he voted Remain, why the prime minister’s deal is the best way to strike a balance between the desire to “honour the mandate,” gain some control over the borders, while protecting trade and jobs as best as you can.
That certainly sounds Tory enough to me. But this week the majority of the party’s MPs—100-odd outright rebels, and 80-odd abstainers—declined to back May’s request for the Article 50 extension, even though it has become a pre-requisite to any negotiated Brexit deal. So one can see exactly why Stewart is worried.
He has shown a taste for softening May’s Brexit somewhat, by backing Ken Clarke’s proposal for a customs union on the last indicative votes, but he is still adamant that her basic approach is right: “The only logical way of dealing with a country that appears to be split almost 50/50 is through a moderate Brexit: leave the political institutions of the EU, but remain very close economically and diplomatically.” For such reasons he is strongly against a second referendum, and—I think out of sincerity, rather than ambition—now describes himself as “a moderate Brexiteer.”
He would “never” vote for no deal, and it’s pretty plain to me he doesn’t think he could even be a candidate for a party that made no deal its manifesto policy either. And Stewart clearly sees the possibility that this could happen soon. Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson, perhaps Andrea Leadsom and others will imminently be fighting a leadership contest in which—thanks to the deep Euro-scepticism of the voluntary party that ultimately picks the new leader—the crown could easily go to whoever dares to take the hardest anti-Brussels line. Parliament will still be gridlocked, and so a new PM might very well write their manifesto and take their chance on an early election. If the sort of bottom-up No Confidence votes that have been snapping at the heels of the likes of Dominic Grieve could be combined with top-down pressure to support a no deal platform, perhaps the Tory party really could be purged of dissenters until the point where it becomes a no deal sect.
I air my own hunch that the affection of local activists for their MPs would preserve some diversity, but Stewart seems much less sure: “very sensible moderate colleagues who basically agree with me that a no deal Brexit would be a very bad thing, are under so much pressure from local parties, the associations, from the pressures from the leadership to feel that maybe it will be OK… maybe we can advocate for it, it won’t be the end of the world. They don’t feel as I do that there is a logical, inescapable, unbreakable connection” between “deliberately severing all connections with Europe” and the sort of party you are.
“Anybody who is on my side of this must rule out a no deal Brexit… if they advocate for it, they are essentially saying we want to be Ukip… and we’re saying goodbye to young people, goodbye to Remain voters, and goodbye to the centre ground of British politics.” OK, he worries nobody is daring to spell out these truths, and so I have to ask: are you thinking of running then? “My answer for that is that I desperately want a standard bearer for this cause. I’m not sure I’m the person. I have many disadvantages. I’m not in the cabinet. I may be too outspoken. I’m an Old Etonian. I mean there are any number of things you could say against me.”
That is, as Westminster watchers always describe it, “a non-denial.” But he must know that if he did run, the odds against him in today’s Europhobic Tory party would be very long indeed, so I believe him when he adds: “What I want is a team that believes in a modern centre-ground. And I want to be part of that team.” But he has a serious difficulty, which is apparent when I ask who among those at the Tory top table could actually lead such a team: “I think that is an issue. I think people are feeling a bit sort of sat on. I hope that the [Easter] break will give people a chance to rediscover their courage, their confidence, their belief and their values.” As it is, “we’re being made to feel when we say there are problems with a no deal Brexit that we’re the extremists, we’re the fringe.”
That it seems, is where the Tory party has left this thoughtful and loyal minister of the Crown. He doesn’t relish the coming war: at the start of our conversation, he is fretting about whether the fractious mood of the moment has led him to be ruder than he would ordinarily have been about Boris Johnson, in another interview with the Times. But listening to him, I feel I was wrong to assume, three years ago, that Matthew Parris was exaggerating when he asserted that a Leave vote could turn out to be terminally ruinous for his Tory tribe.
Rory recently participated in an Oxford Union debate, with Nigel Farage, Lord Andrew Adonis and Henry Newman. Watch Rory’s speech here:
Article first published in Conservative Home on 4 April 2019.
A Brexit deal is not just a deal for this month, or this government – it is the foundation for the next 30 years of Britain’s relationship with the world. So it must be a stable and enduring Brexit. Reaching out to other parties on this issue was difficult and controversial. But it was right. It was necessary to deliver a Brexit deal, and avoid the problems of No Deal. But it was also necessary strategically to heal divisions, and provide investors and international partners with the certainty that the deal can be sustained through the changes of government and party over decades ahead.
The alternative – a No Deal Brexit next week – would not have been a destination, but a failure to reach a destination. There is no transition under No Deal. We would have crashed out with the Irish border issues, our payments to the EU, and citizens’ rights unresolved – and our entire web of relationships with the EU severed. Almost all our current agreements with the 70 nations with which the EU has free trade agreements (including Japan and Canada) would have ceased to operate and we would have been forced to revert to the basic ‘schedules’ of the World Trade Organisation – by definition the highest tariff rates possible for any goods in any country. We would have dropped into the margins of the world’s trading system.
Meanwhile, all the fundamental divisions in public and parliament would have remained after No Deal, undermining whatever we did next. Parliament and the public would still have disagreed about the compromises involved in every future arrangement. No Deal wouldn’t have told us whether to accept US wheat prices, or chicken. No Deal wouldn’t have helped us to decide whether to accept India’s demand for hundreds of thousands of visas for Indian citizens.
This is because No Deal would simply have been the result of an inability to agree on any particular deal. And our inability to agree now and in the foreseeable future would have led to a long and messy delay – in part because we would have been negotiating with giants like the US, from a weaker economic position than we are in now – with President Trump very aware that we needed the deal far more than he did.
Which brings us to ‘Project Fear’. Much has been made of the fact that economists cannot put a precise number on a No Deal Brexit – in part because so much would depend on market confidence. (If investors and consumers were confident that we knew what we were doing, and have a clear vision for exactly what deals would follow No Deal, they could make a difficult situation better; if not…).
But just because you can’t specify exactly what will happen when you drive into a tree, doesn’t mean that is safe to do so. We know enough to know that if had we defaulted to a No Deal Brexit, the car industry and farming would have been in serious trouble. Friction at the border would have compromised automobile just-in-time supply chains (some automobile parts cross the Channel multiple times in the course of making a car), and disrupted supplies of fresh food from Europe. Under No Deal proposals we would pay €95 a tonne to export wheat to Europe, and 46 per cent tariffs on the millions of sheep we export annually. The few economists who try to describe this airily as a ‘medium-term adjustment, through changes in currency and production’ are not thinking through what this would mean for a farm over the next 12 months.
We would have been forced to revert to slow and cumbersome systems of extradition and information exchange, hindering our ability to fight crime. And there would have been a dismal running media story of chaotic queues, anger at supermarkets, and a general sense of a government losing control. The economic consequences would have been felt in a squeeze on household incomes, and in a government forced to borrow more and struggling to pay more for public services. Perhaps worst, a hard border would have been forced on Ireland with no transition – challenging the principle of the Good Friday Agreement, creating inevitable problems for security, increasing demands for Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom. And for Scotland to leave as well.
Which is why anyone who believes in Brexit, and wants to make it a success, should be grateful that the Prime Minister did not give into pressure from people who felt No Deal was a neat answer. It was never the answer to anything. It was simply kicking the can down the road into economic fragility; without defining any future relationship; and ruining the one thing that investors and partners have prized in Britain for 300 years – our reputation for steadiness, prudence and competence.
We disagree passionately with Jeremy Corbyn on the economy, on security, and on international relations. And always will. He is profoundly wrong on those things. But we can find a common position on Brexit when we can on almost nothing else. More than half of Labour constituencies voted Leave. The majority of MPs on both sides of the House want to leave the European Union, end unnecessary EU interference in our regulations, and end free movement of people. Only a minority want to remain in the EU, or hold a second referendum. And getting a deal agreed not just on one but on both sides of the House will provide a more solid foundation than a one-party deal. It will allow businesses to believe that the settlement will last through any number of changes of party or government in the decades to come. This is crucial for investors.
Let’s please get it done now. And then having proved that there are some things we can do with other parties, get back to doing things which only Conservatives can do. We are the party to transform education, health, law and order, the economy and security. We are the party of government. Above all, let us go on to master Brexit in all its details – get a deal that works, for example, for our digital industries, media and financial services – and back those international relationships, with the right economic environment, the right education, and the military and diplomatic authority to reinforce and strengthen our position in the world.
Rory appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire Show this morning to discuss Brexit and the current political situation alongside Stephen Doughty MP. Watch it here:
He also spoke to Jeremy Vine this afternoon:
And the PM Programme on 5 April:
And Channel 4 News:
He was given a tour of the premises at the foot of Haweswater dam and shown several of the 220,000 juvenile salmon, which had grown up on site. Salmon grow in freshwater released from Haweswater in pools at the Burn Banks site until they reach a size where they can be sent to sea and grow into mature salmon. The sale of the mature fish from Cooke’s UK operations net the UK £88million a year in exports, with sales predominantly to the EU, USA and China.
In order to secure the site’s future, a new Environment Agency permit was required. After 10 years of biological and water quality monitoring of the local beck, the limits required to secure the site’s long term future were finally agreed with the Environment Agency and the site’s consultants, Peak Associates, who are based at Lancaster University, in January 2019. Cooke Aquaculture will now continue working with Lancaster University’s experts in water quality to make sure that any impact from the site remains within acceptable limits. Ensuring the site remains within sustainable limits will be key for the next 10 years as issues can be caused downstream when too many nutrients go into upland becks.
Nick Smith, Site Manager at Burn Banks Smolt Unit, and Mike Matthews, Managing Director of Peak Associates, thanked Rory for taking time during the early stages of the review to make sure Cooke Aquaculture, the Environment Agency and Natural England understood the need to achieve a balance between protecting the environment and ensuring export led businesses like Cooke can thrive in rural communities. After over 12 months of negotiation all parties were eventually happy with the new limits and agreed that this balance had been achieved.
After the visit, Rory said: “It was fascinating to visit the Cooke Aquaculture site at the foot of Haweswater and find out more about how they rear salmon. I was really impressed by the operation and the professionalism of staff at the site. I’m very glad that a balance was found which both protects the environment and business so that the new permit limits could be agreed. This is a great example of how a business in my constituency is having an impact on an international stage.”