Monthly Archives: September 2019

Tories must rise above the Boris bluster and stick to the centre ground

The new Conservative Party may have a Trumpian flavour but it is not defined by Trumpian trash-talk. In fact, you have only to watch Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg at the Conservative Party conference to see how polite they can be. It is like encountering a certain type of public-school boy in a pub — could such well-spoken men, so generous with spending, so concerned about nature, really have said what I thought they said? And did they really smile when I turned my back? Did he really do what I think he did? Could I prove any of it? And am I taking it all too seriously?

Such tricks are now a feature of government. The new leaders are charming in person, and then sack you by text, they claim to respect all the establishment conventions before flouting them, promise to do what they cannot deliver, are disloyal and yet demand loyalty, and scrupulously avoid the “how” of anything. All this ambiguity allows their supporters to maintain that Johnson is “really a liberal”, that a moderate Brexit deal is coming, and that the party is returning to the centre ground.

But you feel it in the way he treats MPs. It is not so much that Johnson has “removed the whip” from 21 of us — one of whom has served in Parliament since 1970. Or that Mrs Thatcher never did anything like it. It is the way he did it — claiming the bill was a vote of no-confidence when it wasn’t, and then relabelling it a “surrender bill”; attacking us for blocking no deal, while maintaining that no deal is “not an outcome I am aiming for, and not an outcome that I want”; suggesting it was a temporary suspension then telling our local parties that we could never stand again as MPs.

It reminded me of how Johnson made me apologise for suggesting he was in favour of no deal, and then came out three days later for no deal. Or how he said: “I would like to make it absolutely clear that I am not attracted to arcane procedures such as the prorogation of Parliament”. He then prorogued, insisting that this had nothing to do with driving through Brexit; and then implied that by over-ruling the prorogation, the Supreme Court was conspiring to block Brexit. And by then most of the parliamentary party were applauding him in the chamber. It was at that point that I realised how much our party had changed.

It is now naïve to think that the PM will be weakened by failing to deliver Brexit by October 31. It has been clear to some of us since May that this promise would be unachievable. It should now be obvious to everyone. The House has passed a law, blocking no deal and requiring an extension. And Johnson has put very little effort since into securing a deal: he has not submitted realistic proposals to the EU, and he has not reached out to the moderate Labour MPs whose votes he would need (instead he has gone out of his way to antagonise them in the House). But he still insists that Britain will leave on October 31.

This is not true, he cannot believe it is true, and his supporters must at some level know that it is not true. And yet he will not be blamed for any of it. He will be loved as a man who “knows where he is going” by people who know that he could never have got there. Challenging him is like boxing against a man wrapped in an armour of marshmallows.

Trump is more up front — he hits you around the head with a 36-word tweet. Johnson prefers 900 words at a time, burying words such as “bum-boy” or “surrender”, within a vast extended routine of quotation, imprecision and equivocation. He will compare the EU to Hitler’s attempt to create a European super-state, in much the same way that Rees-Mogg can say Brexit is “Agincourt, Crecy — we win all those things”.

No mainstream German or French politician would make such comparisons (although Serbs and Russians do). These English politicians half get away with it, because English nationalism — like Johnson himself — never seems entirely serious. And it is this ambiguity, this veneer of irony, which may yet allow him to win a majority, and drive through a no-deal Brexit — for which everyone except himself will be blamed.

How could he be defeated in an election? Not by asserting that he is spinning fairy-stories — or by believing in the inevitable triumph of reality and prudence (I tried to run a leadership campaign against him in that way and lost).

A polite appeal to logic is doomed, when so many are looking for a hand grenade to throw at the establishment, and are picking the candidate most likely to blow the system up.

Instead, you would have to restore energy, a flexibility and an exuberance, to the centre of British politics. Politicians of the centre ground will have to learn to be less polite. They must give themselves permission to express their anger at the wrong-headedness of government, and the shameful undignified conditions in which some of our fellow citizens live.

And above all they must find a public that shares their anger at the shoddiness of our politics. And they might have to wait until Brexit is done. But the triumph of Trumpian politics is not inevitable.

Not even in an age of social media. Moral and political energy are founded in truth — and that thrives not on the extremes but in the centre of British politics.

Article first published in the Evening Standard, 30 September 2019.



Rory will this Saturday be joining more than 50 horse riders on the first Reiver Ride to celebrate Cumbria’s Border Reiving history.

Local riders and others from as far afield as Durham, York and Lockerbie will be travelling to Bewcastle for the inaugural Reiver Ride, which Mr Stewart will also be riding in. Two routes of 12 miles and 18.5 miles have been devised by Mr Stewart and local equestrian business owners Chris Parsons and Pam Copeland with help from local farmers and the Bewcastle Hunt. The routes are predominantly on quiet, country roads but there will be opportunities for gallops through fields and canters through woods. Both routes start from St Cuthbert’s Church, Bewcastle, the site of a former Roman fort and home to the Bewcastle Cross.

Mr Stewart said: “I’m really looking forward taking part in this ride to celebrate the Reiving history of the Borders. This is a very special area of the country with such a rich history and I’m delighted that we can highlight it in this way. I’m very grateful to all those who have helped make this happen and that so many riders from both side of the border are coming to take part.”

No Deal

No-Deal is not a destination: it is a failure to reach a destination. And it would be perceived rightly – by our international partners and investors – as a signal failure of sense, statesmanship, and strategy. We would drop overnight into the margins of the world’s trading system. We would have left all the fundamental questions, about our future, unresolved and uncertain. And our reputation, prosperity and influence would be damaged for no benefit. A sensible Brexit deal, by contrast, would not only avoid the mess of no-deal. It would provide a constructive and predictable environment for our businesses, for government, and international trade – from which Britain can grow its influence and standing in the world.

No-deal is not a destination – it is a holding place for negotiating future deals with Europe, or the US, or Japan, over some years, which would then need to be approved by parliament.

There is no transition under no-deal. We literally crash out on November 1st with nothing in place – with the Irish border issues, our payments to the EU, and citizens’ rights unresolved – and our entire web of relationships with the EU severed. All these things instead of being resolved are left suspended and unknown.

No-deal knocks us out over 50 existing trade deals overnight. All our current relationships with the EU and the 50 nations with which the EU has free trade agreements (including Japan and Canada) would cease to be operable overnight and we would be forced to revert to the basic ‘schedules’ of the WTO defining tariffs and quotas.

WTO: These are by definition the highest tariff possible in every country on every good. Free trade agreements, such as the EU Customs Union exist precisely in order to secure more favourable terms than the WTO. (For example, cars and milk which are zero-tariff in our current EU arrangements would be under the WTO schedule 10 per cent for cars and more than 35 per cent for dairy products). Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested that we could somehow rely on one of the WTO articles – GATT 24, to give us tariff free access to Europe for ten years. Trade experts are unanimous that this is nonsense – inapplicable, unacceptable to the EU, and unenforceable.

And no-deal would still leave us with the same divisions in public and parliament – making it very difficult to get out of no-deal/WTO and make any future trade deal.

USA: The key US demand will be to accept their agricultural products and standards. Would we want our farmers stuck between cheaper goods coming in from the US, and the tariffs of over 40 per cent that Europe would be forced to put up to protect their own farmers?

India: Would we accept India’s demand in the last India-EU trade round that a trade deal is conditional on granting hundreds of thousands of visas to Indian citizens every year?

Europe: Negotiations with Europe – our largest trading partner – are likely to be even more difficult than they have been for the last two and a half years because they will be resentful about our messy and economically damaging departure and negotiating bitterly about the 39 Billion pound bill.

External tariffs: Should we prioritise our motor industry (which employs 850,000 people and is entirely dependent on frictionless trade with Europe), or accept a negative impact on the car industry into order to secure free external tariffs? How would we protect against cheap and inferior goods being ‘dumped’ on the UK markets?

Our inability to answer those questions now suggests that no-deal may last far longer and be far messier than we like to think.

And we will be negotiating from a weaker economic position than now. Every economist (the Bank of England, the OECD, the LSE, the Treasury etc etc) is confident the impact would be negative. This does not mean that a precise number can be put on this, because so much would depend on market and government reaction. If investors and consumers are confident, for instance, that we know what we are doing, and have a clear vision for exactly what deals will follow no-deal, they could make a difficult situation better; whereas if they withhold investment and spending, while they wait and see, they could make a difficult situation much worse. Governments can also make this better and worse.) But we do know that in a no-deal Brexit:

Key sectors will suffer significantly from tariffs – including the automobile industry and agricultural exports which have grown, protected by high tariff barriers from non-European competition while exporting tariff-free to Europe. Under no-deal proposals we would pay 95 Euro a tonne to export wheat to Europe, but charge zero-tariff on wheat imports; and 46 per cent tariffs would cripple our current sheep exports (4.5 million sheep a year). Similar problems for chicken, beef and pork would render many UK farming businesses unviable. No-deal also creates severe problems for international lawyers, accountants, architects, doctors and nurses. Passporting would end for the City – forcing them to establish EU branches to trade in the EU.

Delays at the European borders are inevitable – not least because companies and customs officers will be new to the paperwork, (Rod McKenzie, head of public affairs at the Road Haulage Association, said: “In no way are we ready for a no-deal Brexit.”) Friction at the border will seriously undermine automobile just-in-time supply chains (some of their automobile parts cross the channel multiple times in the course of making a car), and of course disrupt supplies of fresh food from Europe.


For these and many other issues, the situation would be ‘by clear orders of magnitude materially worse for Britain’s economic outlook’ than the bank of England’s current forecasts. We should expect:

· a sharp fall in output (particularly in the manufactured goods sector),
· a sharp fall in employment
· a sharp fall in exports
· a sharp increase in prices (particularly in food)
· a fall in the value of sterling

All of this is likely to contribute to a fall in the value of the pound, uncertainties over interest rates, a drop in household incomes, a reduction in government revenue and a rapid increase in deficit and debt. Estimates put the economic impact somewhere in the region of the impact of the 2008 financial crash. The consequences for the economies of Northern Ireland will be much worse. (In Ireland, the no-deal scenario would see us erect no tariffs against the EU, while the EU erect its tariffs against us – meaning that UK businesses could pay the standard EU tariff of over 40 per cent exporting cheese or lamb to the Republic, and they would pay nothing exporting to the UK).

Security and Ireland

The hard border which would follow in Ireland would be a fundamental challenge to the principle of the Good Friday Agreement, which based the agreement on the absence of a border. Politically, a no-deal will increase demands for Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom. And for Scotland to leave as well. No-deal Brexit would force us to revert to slow and cumbersome systems of extradition and information exchange, hindering our ability to fight crime. We would struggle to transfer and exchange data with EU members for a significant period of time.


No-deal is not the answer to anything – it is simply another way of kicking the can down the road but into a much more fragile economic situation. We would face more years of debts and austerity, undermine Britain’s reputation for competence and reliability, and take us no further forward in defining any future relationships with the EU or anyone else.


Screenshot 2019-09-03 at 13.00.52

Article first published in the Evening Standard on 3 September 2019.

Rory Stewart says he would still “love to be prime minister”. At the start of the summer this seemed just about plausible — the MP for Penrith and The Border was briefly the favourite to be the next Tory leader. Then he self-destructed, in an uncomfortable live debate on BBC1.

He says now: “Everything I said seemed guaranteed to lose me the debate and my colleagues were looking at me like I was a lunatic”.

He was compared to both Mick Jagger and the puppet from Interpol’s Evil video. Twenty-four hours later he was out of the contest and resigned as international development secretary, refusing to serve under Boris Johnson.

But after a few weeks away with his family in Cape Cod and the Highlands, reading books about Buddhism and drugs in Nazi Germany, Stewart is back fighting, imploring his fellow Conservatives to vote tomorrow to block the UK from leaving the European Union without a deal.

He is strident about the need to stop a no-deal Brexit, and thinks we need a written constitution “to protect the public against bizarre things like proroguing and politicians who think compromise is a dirty word”.

After our interview, a story breaks about Johnson’s special adviser Dominic Cummings threatening to deselect any MPs who don’t vote with the Government.

Stewart sends a voice note on WhatsApp about it saying: “I don’t think they are going really to deselect us. It would be odd.

“We signed up for a Conservative manifesto which was against the disorderly exit from the European Union, and to take Conservative MPs out, particularly people such as Philip Hammond or David Lidington who have a distinguished long service in the party would be, to put it mildly, eccentric.”

Aged 46, Stewart is a neat figure, and by far the smartest person in the Peckham pub where we have met.

“I understand my colleagues feel under pressure,” he says. “They want to be loyal to the Prime Minister — and the last thing they want is an extension of the last six months — but a no-deal Brexit will be a disaster.”

He adds: “Dominic Cummings, the ERG and Boris have made no-deal the default when it was always the minority fringe position.

“No-deal Brexit is damaging in the short term to our economy and would make poverty more difficult, but long term it is damaging because it’s so divisive; it pits young against old, Scotland against England, North against South.

“That polarisation is deeply damaging because we are a country whose civilisation was built on compromise — we solved the Civil War through a compromise, constitutional monarchy.

“We do believe it is important to deliver Brexit, but not with no-deal. We are not a no-deal country, we are a yes-deal country.”

His four-year-old son is supportive. “He is able to say ‘Boris Johnson.’ I’m not sure he has a clear idea of what that is, but when he drops his Lego he says, ‘Oh Boris Johnson!’

Stewart would like the Prime Minister to “stop pretending that he is going to get a new deal when he can’t”.

“Don’t tell me I’m being pessimistic,” he counters. “We wouldn’t accept his attitude in a domestic context.

“If I said to you as my partner that we were moving to Mauritius to live in a millionaire’s mansion for the next seven years, you would tell me we don’t have money or jobs in Mauritius and wouldn’t accept it.

“But somehow in politics all the prizes go to the person who can make the most extravagant claim and brand it as optimism. It’s Boris’s whole style and it’s a huge philosophical difference between us.”

“When I was working with him at the Foreign Office [in 2017-18] I discovered all the ambassadors were ending telegrams with ‘this is another win for Global Britain, a sign that Britain is the most important country’.

“I told the ambassadors it was ridiculous and untrue. That was the only time I was told off by Boris; he called me into his office and said, ‘What are you doing? You’ve got to pep people up. I used to be captain of the rugby team and the way you win a rugby match is you tell people they are great.’”

Stewart raises his eyebrows at Johnson’s argument that proroguing isn’t to do with Brexit and feels “cross” with his colleagues such as Andrea Leadsom, Amber Rudd and Nicky Morgan who said they were against it and now support it.

“There’s one objective here, which is Dom Cummings’s: to squeeze the timetable to stop a no-deal Brexit.”

Before the leadership election, Stewart had lunch with Cummings at “a little dim sum restaurant in Leicester Square”, when Cummings was “floating, looking for a role in life”.

“I profoundly disagree with him on this Brexit subject,” he says. “But in some ways our brains are not dissimilar. We have a similar frustration about getting things done in government and both feel there is something wrong with how Parliament conducts itself. He’s rigorous. I’m aware now I find myself on the opposite side to him that I’ve got to be on my game.”

What chance does Stewart’s party have of winning an election? “Boris is lucky he is going against Jeremy Corbyn. The number of Labour voters who come up to me and say they’re looking for an alternative to Corbyn is big. I reckon Boris would end up almost exactly with what Theresa May got in the last election and no majority without the DUP.”

Yet a sense of loyalty to his party stops him from breaking away, as well as an obligation to the people who voted for him. “There is a Conservatism we have lost which matters. It is about belief in individual rights, limited government, strength abroad. It’s not Boris Johnson’s Conservatism. I suppose it is my parents’.” On a practical level, “new parties are generally a catastrophe, as Change UK has shown.”

Stewart is wearing his father’s gold Army cufflinks from The Black Watch. Brian Stewart rose to the top of MI6 and when his son was younger he used to wake up at 6am to spend three hours playing with him.

Stewart’s younger sister has Down’s syndrome and the family were surprised and delighted when she learned to read and write in her late twenties.

His father’s view of Britishness was “energy”. “He didn’t have some grand narrative of British identity; he saw us as an energetic, ‘get on with it’ nation.”

It’s his father’s “get on with it” attitude that made Stewart run for leader. “I kept telling other one-nation Conservatives they had to run against no-deal. Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, David Gauke all wouldn’t. Somebody had to and I felt frustrated.”

Before he decided, however, he and his wife drew a flowchart to determine what not getting the Brexit withdrawal agreement through would mean for his party.

“We concluded that if we couldn’t get the withdrawal agreement through a no-deal Brexiteer would win, because out of sheer impatience the associations would vote for that. On the basis of that flowchart I shouldn’t have run. Amber Rudd didn’t run on that basis.”

But Stewart is at his most animated when talking about challenges, so  he ignored the flowchart. His wife Shoshana Clark — whom he met when she took over his job running his charity Turquoise Mountain — took time off work to run his campaign.

“She was amazing,” he said. “I’d come back at 11.30pm from a day of interviews and my wife would say you’re going to have to message colleagues to check you have their vote. At 2.30am you’d get into bed and your brain would be racing. If I did it again I would get more sleep.”

His main regret, though, is the BBC debate. He mocks himself talking about tax in a lofty voice. “You could hear my colleagues wondering what I was doing. I felt increasingly on my own. I thought we were all against Boris.

“I didn’t realise the others had calculated what they needed to do was knock me out so they could be second against Boris.”

Emily Maitlis, who chaired the debate, is “a sort of friend, and I kept expecting she would turn to me: she never did.”

He adds: “I’d been under huge pressure from people saying I was alienating colleagues by being too aggressive and I needed to be dignified, statesmanlike. It was completely the wrong advice and I later discovered it was from Boris’s team because they were worried.”

After the debate he didn’t have a moment to reflect. He got straight on a plane to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of his brief, as international development secretary, to meet people with Ebola.

He understands Johnson’s rhetoric — they both learned debating at Eton.

“There must be something strange about Eton that so many people that went there want to be MPs,” he ponders. “There are lots of other fancy independent schools where people would rather be bankers than MPs. At Eton we had an unrealistic idea of life as an MP, a romantic notion of a glamorous life that doesn’t prepare you for the Commons.”

The other problem is why talented bright people from other, as Stewart says, “normal” backgrounds aren’t applying to be MPs.

“My father would say, and this is controversial, it is to do with grammar schools. In the Seventies every single permanent secretary had been to a grammar. Today a surprising number have been to private schools. There is a question about social mobility.” He isn’t sure that Eton would suit his sons.

He hasn’t seen his family for a week because he’s been on a walking tour, looking at how poverty is affecting Britain — a topic he’s reflecting on writing a book about. The places he has visited are safe Labour seats. “The Conservatives wouldn’t normally go there.”

All the problems he’s seen would be exacerbated by no-deal. The walks are a legacy of his leadership campaign.

“The most precious thing I gained from the campaign was seeing people. I never felt I had permission to do that before. As a Tory MP it is difficult. People say, ‘This is your fault, this is austerity, this is Thatcher closing the coal mines, how dare you come here?’ He adds: “There are so many huge problems that I’d love to get on with sorting out. I’d love to be prime minister to take the risk of making unpopular long-term decisions.”

And with a self-depreciating smile, he says: “I may have discovered on the campaign that campaigning on the basis of unpopular long-term decisions may not be the best route to a Cabinet post.”