Author Archives: Gillian

What is wrong with us?

What is wrong with us? The United Kingdom should be one of the most impressive democracies on Earth. We have incisive and apparently incorruptible judges; an undeferential, boisterous and intelligent media; and an extraordinary culture of voluntary activity – supplemented by charitable superpowers such as Oxfam and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Our civil servants, diplomats and soldiers are thoughtful and skilful. Our parliament is more diverse than at any time in its history. Our economy is stable. Only the US can rival our universities; and only the US and China, our success in science. London remains one of the greatest cities on Earth. Our citizens have never seemed so healthy or better educated. So why does it suddenly seem to be so difficult to make what once, at least, seemed obvious, sensible arguments from the centre ground?

Three weeks ago, I found myself in the final five for the leadership of the Conservative Party. I went into a BBC debate against the other four candidates – all of whom were promising unfunded tax cuts and increases in public spending. They also rejected the current European Union withdrawal agreement and insisted on retaining no-deal as a threat against the EU. All the others claimed to be able to get a new deal out of Brussels by the end of October (or in one case, the end of the year). All insisted that in the absence of such a deal, they would want to leave in 2019 with no deal, and that they would be able to drive no deal through parliament.

How could I lose against such arguments? Most of the public and 90 per cent of my parliamentary colleagues agreed – or at least had recently agreed – that we could not get no deal through parliament. Very few people were comfortable with unfunded tax or spending promises. Or with a no-deal Brexit. Or with suspending parliament. Nobody seriously believed that Brussels would offer an entirely new deal by October (even Nigel Farage agreed with me on that).

But I failed to win any of these arguments, and within 24 hours I was knocked out of the contest. There have been explanations for my failure. One, made by the pollster John Curtice, is that public opinion simply makes a “centrist” position such as mine impossibly quixotic. Public opinion was traditionally – in the time of Tony Blair and David Cameron – a bell curve with all the votes located in the centre ground. Now the bell shape has collapsed, like an unstable soufflé, into a U-shape, leaving voters only on the extremes.

Forty per cent of voters want to ignore the referendum result and remain in the European Union; and 40 per cent of the population – and around 80 per cent of Conservative members – apparently favour no deal if the alternative is remain. There was almost no constituency for someone trying to argue for a moderate and pragmatic Brexit among the public – and therefore there could not be among practical MPs.

I favour a different explanation. Which was that I had forgotten all the lessons of the many walks I had done around the country in the previous weeks – from Derry to Derby, from Edinburgh to Peterborough – and had tried simply to rehearse what I saw as the facts. I talked about the impact of unfunded tax cuts and spending pledges on our fiscal position. I tried and failed to explain in a few seconds how higher tariffs following a no-deal Brexit would lead to inflation, pressure on incomes, interest rate rises, and ultimately negative impacts on GDP.


In other words, as some of my friends argued when they were being more polite, I was “off my game”.

The lesson is that it is possible to change minds, and defeat extremist positions; but not by explaining tariff levels. If 72 per cent of voters are dissatisfied with the UK democratic system – half believing that the government doesn’t care about them, and more than half saying that “Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules” – you cannot expect to win simply on technocratic arguments. But nor should you feel forced to respond with nonsense and fairy tales. What I had seen, walking around the country, is that democratic life is neither about echoing and deepening pre-existing prejudices, nor only about communicating economics.

To support a sensible, pragmatic position, you have to begin by rediscovering a sense of anger and shame. And acknowledge how unforgiveable and appalling many things are in modern Britain. You need to see the line of broken windows in cell after cell in a Liverpool prison, and see the blood on the floor in one in Birmingham, to feel the right kind of shame at the state of our prisons. You need to get out to Poplar in east London to see the white tent in the rough grass between the buildings of a housing estate, pitched over the body of a dead man; the air ambulance, rotor blades still spinning, waiting to take him away; and listen to the older man explain what it was like to walk out of his mosque and see someone lying on the ground, bleeding to death from a knife wound.

Second, you need to be very much in a hurry to fix things. You cannot accept that it is impossible to reduce violence in prisons in a year. Or that the fast train connection between Leeds and Manchester will not begin to be built until 2035. Or that Britain should have slower broadband speeds than Madagascar. Or that almost every young man around that Poplar estate is carrying a knife. Nor should you accept smaller injustices – such as the idea that a constituent visiting a dying parent should receive a parking fine in the hospital car park.

Third, you need to be ambitious. You should aim to plant not 11 million trees but 110 million trees; build not a million homes in five years, but two million and build them with government money, and make them beautiful.

And if there is a single extreme disgrace, such as the great unfinished revolution of adult social care – left for decades after the creation of the NHS – then sort it out. It is not defensible that the frail elderly should only get 15-minute daily care visits in their homes – hardly long enough to wash them, let alone talk to them. So, reach boldly across parties, and agree on how to finance a proper system of care.

All of this – seeing the horrors, feeling the shame, getting on with it at scale – allows you occasionally to do something more fundamental, which is to be truthful about your own failings, and the obstacles that stand in the way of getting anything significant done. And all of this – from shame to truth – helps you to believe in what you are doing again.

Perhaps because the centre ground had seemed so inevitable and successful for so long, little emotional or moral energy was needed to make the case for moderation. Instead the arguments had long been surrendered to policy think tanks and civil servants who produced intelligent papers, in a minor key – about learning lessons from Scandinavia, or recommending better use of technology, or more efficiency. The only “value” that had been discussed for two decades was value for money. Patriotism, liberty, courage, and the will of the people were ideas that were abandoned – left on a dusty shelf – to be picked up again by the more divisive politicians.

It was all too easy for the extremists to use punchy language to disguise their vacuous fantasies, making the impractical seem practical, the negative positive, and the airy-fairy down to earth. Take “no-deal Brexit”, for example. It is a phrase that sounds like a thing, a fine Anglo-Saxon fact, not an abstraction like “a temporary backstop”, but it is in fact the opposite of a thing. No deal is an absence that pretends to be a presence; the negation of a deal that pretends to be a type of deal.

It is a phrase that floats recklessly free from any connection to any particular person in a local place, or at a particular time. It cannot ever tell, say, Chris Harrison, a sheep farmer in Alston, Cumbria, whether he would have to pay European tariffs of 40 per cent on his Swaledale lambs; or whether Brazilian beef would come in import-free. But it is vague enough to allow its proponents to claim it is democratic despite the majority of the population being against it, and patriotic even though it is against the best traditions and interests of our country.

Like almost every other argument made today – even in the mainstream of the Labour and Conservative parties – it builds on the fantasy of the victim, that you would be better off on your own, if only you could rid yourself of other classes, other groups and other nations. It shares the instinct that made some Scottish nationalists feel that the many challenges of a modern nation could be solved by simply getting rid of England. And these desires to turn away from relationships seemed an aspect of a deeper desire to turn away from reality – from the questions of who or what we really are today as a people, what we share, and who we can realistically be in the future.

I’ve been struggling to communicate my sense that the centre ground should not be simply a midpoint between these empty abstractions  – some grey smudge between the blacks and whites of the extreme; that it has a reality, a connective power and a maturity that is denied to the other positions. It is something that exists on a different dimension – of reality as opposed to fairy tale. And because it is grounded in reality, it can be sustained and successful in a way populism cannot, because it is founded in truth.

But the centre should also not be a narrowing project that seeks to belittle the intuitions, the understanding or the motivations of people who currently favour a no-deal Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn.

Faced with a democracy that sometimes feels as though all the votes are gathered at two opposite ends of a stick, the centre ground must not be simply the midpoint of the stick, whose only merit is being as far away as possible from each extreme. It should instead involve a project of bending the stick and connecting both ends with a string to make a bow. The centre should then be at the midpoint of the string, the point of greatest potential energy – which comes not from excluding the two extremes, nor from linking them loosely together, but instead from harnessing the tension of two opposing forces.

Our country has entered a midlife crisis. The answer cannot be to try to lurch back to an adolescent fantasy of being saved by superheroes, but instead to move forward into maturity. Such a maturity begins with a recognition of our shame, our failures, and our successes in surviving and battling the constraints of the world and time. A maturity that turns from comforting and ambiguous abstractions to face, unflinchingly, reality. And to say, like Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, reflecting on whether he missed the excitement of his youth, “not with the fire that’s in me now”.


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.”


Rory Stewart 4Eden

Rory visited 4Eden’s latest venture, Cafe4EDEN at Brougham Hall, to find out more about the charity’s exciting plans for the future.

Mr Stewart was very impressed by the delicious food and  service at the café which is run by 4EDEN, formerly Eden Mencap Society. Owning a café has been a long-term plan of 4EDEN’s chief officer, Jacqui Taylor, to help people with a learning disability develop skills and provide employment for them. Once people are trained up in the café, they are offered paid work on weekends. All the fresh food served at the cafe – including soups, breads and traybakes – is also prepared by people supported by 4EDEN.

While visiting Brougham Hall, Mrs Taylor showed Mr Stewart around the buildings which 4EDEN are planning on making into a brewery and bakery. To raise funds to buy their own building, Ullswater House, in Penrith, 4EDEN worked in partnership with a local brewery to create and sell its own ale – Vanya Yam. Ullswater House has now been boughtbut Brew4EDEN still continues and has now been asked to make ales for two other businesses. The bakery at Brougham Hall will also make fresh breads to supply local businesses.

After the visit, Mr Stewart said: “I was really impressed by the brilliant initiative shown by 4EDEN and the great variety of projects they have going on. The drive of those working at 4EDEN to come up
with different ideas and help people to build up their skills is really fantastic to see. The café at is a real gem at Brougham Hall and I’d encourage everyone to pop in.”
Mrs Taylor said: “Many question if our guys are capable, the answer is yes – all are, but each person has different skills and needs and I need to develop a way in which we can include all those (who want to be included) and change the way ‘day services’ are run into a meaning full activity base with outcomes to sustain.We want to be more than just a provider of services and meeting basic needs. We are brave, bold and courageous and we value each person – lose this learning disability label and treat each person as an equal, with the respect, value and opportunities we all deserve.

Interview in The Times

Article first published in The Times on 24 August 2019 by Magnus Linklater.


In the days after Rory Stewart lost in his bid to be prime minister and watched Boris Johnson take the country in what he saw as a disastrous direction, he began to question why he was in politics at all.

He had, by general consent, performed well as a rank outsider, but the Johnson bandwagon was too powerful to be resisted. His appeals to moderation and good sense had fallen on stony ground.

“You catch me in quite a gloomy mood,” Mr Stewart, 46, confesses. “At the moment I tend to be worried when I wake up at three in the morning about whether this no-deal Brexit episode suggests there are people in government who either don’t understand what they are doing or don’t care. My whole project was based on compromise, and I thought I could win an argument that we could find the middle ground, and I could assert reasoned argument.

“But I failed. And so I have to then look at myself quite carefully and try to understand what it means to fail in that way. To what extent have I misunderstood the country, the public, myself; what am I really betting on over the next 20 to 30 years in terms of my ability to turn that around?”

He decided that he should set out on a journey across Britain to find out what the country really thought, not to easy and receptive places but to parts of the country where society seemed to be breaking down. He spent time in Northern Ireland, the north of England, and the East End of London, where he arrived shortly after yet another knife attack. “There were police cars and a white tent, a body and air ambulances,” he recalls. “But also simple things like being taken by a woman to the ladies lavatories and being shown a lot of men shooting up heroin, and just how disgusting and dirty they were.”

In Northern Ireland he found a fragile peace still holding, but signs of potential conflict everywhere. “It was an extraordinary eye-opener from the time I spent in Derry and Enniskillen because to see the 14ft brick walls that enclose the Protestant community still standing, the Parachute Regiment flags, and on the walls in the nationalist community the huge murals of Che Guevara and the rest. You got the sense that peace there is very fragile,” he says.

“Then in Enniskillen, realising that the entire farming economy was dependent on trade with the Republic — 85 per cent of the sheep went to abattoirs across the border. I suppose what I felt, in connection with Scottish nationalism, is a reminder that in a very brutal and obvious sense nationalism is about borders, the line on the map that says, ‘This is us; this is you’. That’s what I felt about Scottish nationalism: just deepening the line between Berwick and Carlisle was never going to help anyone.”

Rory Stewart walking across Afghanistan in 2002
Rory Stewart walking across Afghanistan in 2002Rick Loomis/LA Times/Getty Images

Mr Stewart is well used to difficult places and difficult conversations. His father, Brian, was a Scottish diplomat and Mr Stewart followed in his footsteps, working for the diplomatic service in Indonesia and Montenegro after a brief stint in the Black Watch. He was also deputy governor of two provinces in the Marsh Arab region of southern Iraq after the US and British invasion of 2003. From 2000 to 2002 he walked across Pakistan, Iran, Nepal, India and Afghanistan and wrote his award-winning account, The Places In Between.

Sitting in the conservatory at the Stewart family home in Crieff, wearing a kilt and sporran after attending the Crieff Highland Games, with his children playing next door, Mr Stewart seems a million miles from the troubles of the country. But he is determined to continue his journey of exploration.

“I’m spending the last week of August travelling around Glasgow, Hartlepool, Newcastle and Manchester, working in NHS hospitals, going out with the police, spending time with foster families, staying nights in council estates. Because what I’m really interested in is the sense that everyone has deeply neglected about 10 per cent of our population, whom I saw very directly when I was prisons minister — 50 per cent of whom had reading ages under 11, and 40 per cent of whom had been in care. I realised that nobody was really speaking for them, not just the Conservatives, not Labour either, because by definition most of these people don’t vote. In fact almost none of them vote.”

Mr Stewart, who was elected MP for Penrith and the Border in Cumbria in 2010, reckoned that if he wanted to make any difference at all he would have to stay in politics and take up the fight against a no-deal Brexit, which he believes will make life immeasurably worse for the poorest areas of the country — and then go on to make the argument for uniting rather than dividing Britain.

“The job in government I loved most was being prisons minister,” he says (he also served as international development secretary before resigning when Mr Johnson became prime minister). “Because there I really felt I was able to make a difference, identify problems, come up with a plan. We chose ten prisons and I had all the prison governors up to stay in this house for two and a half days. I visited all the prisons repeatedly, shadowed prison officers on the wings, went through every prison again and again, getting the figures, and we did reduce violence in prisons, and drugs, much more quickly than I thought we could.”

He had promised to resign if he did not succeed but statistics published this weeksuggest that he would have stayed on. Violence and drug use have fallen since last year at some of England’s “most challenging” prisons, according to the Ministry of Justice. Assaults fell by 16 per cent and failed drug tests also dropped across the ten prisons that were given extra security funding.

There is, however, a “sting in the tale”, he says. “The way government works is very odd. I was just 80 per cent through my prison reforms when they moved me to be secretary of state for international development. [Before that] I was just finishing my Africa strategy as Africa minister when they reshuffled me to become prisons minister. I had five ministerial jobs in four years. What does this tell you about [David] Cameron or Theresa May or Boris, do they really believe in ministers, do they respect them, or is it a sort of pantomime in which ministers are playthings designed to placate different parts of the party?”

So now Mr Stewart is returning to Westminster, with another project on his hands: stopping a no-deal Brexit. And not only stopping it but explaining what will happen if and when it is stopped. “I have to work with colleagues to resolve this fundamental question. I want an extension [to the exit date of October 31] because I believe the only way to heal the country is through a compromise: a moderate Brexit. But what is an extension for? There I have to gamble that Europe has no particular interest in throwing us out. But it requires patience and optimism of an immense sort on the part of Europe and everybody else to believe we can see our way through this conundrum.”

One approach he would like to explore is a citizens’ assembly, rather as was used in Ireland on the abortion issue. Scotland is planning now to set up a 120-strong assembly to debate “what kind of country we are seeking to build”.

On Brexit “it would be a way of having a bridge between the referendum and the parliament, of citizens randomly selected like a jury whose job it would be to sit for some weeks to look at the evidence very carefully, then come forward with a proposal”, he says. “Parliament isn’t set up to spend weeks sitting, going through detail; it’s a much more instinctual body that takes what it perceives to be the interests of party or constituents and translates them very rapidly into votes. It doesn’t have the memory of how to come up with a constructive proposal, it just knows how to say yea or nay.”

One way or another it seems that Rory Stewart has overcome his moment of self-doubt and is back in the political mainstream, trying to work out solutions for a country which he sees as broken but which he still believes can be fixed.

What book is on your bedside table?
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler.

What music would you take to your desert island?
Mozart clarinet and flute concertos.

Who would you choose to have a week-long conversation with?
My best friend, Felix.

What was the best advice you were ever given, and who gave it?

Just get on with it — my father.

A week off: walking the hills or catching up on missed episodes of Line of Duty?
Walking the hills.

Sartorial choice: Savile Row or Campbell’s of Beauly?

Tell us a secret
I am completely unable to hold a tune.



Omega Proteins

Rory has called for clear deadlines to be set out for improvement of the ‘Penrith Pong’. Mr Stewart made the call after meeting separately with Omega Proteins, Penrith Industrial BID and the Environment Agency on Friday, August 16th.

Mr Stewart was shown around the animal rendering facility by Danny Sawrij, director of Leo Group, and the site’s manager, Simon Boyles, who both assured Mr Stewart that the current building work being undertaken at the site was to help reduce odours. Mr Sawrij also explained that the site was installing a back up generator so that in future the site should not be affected by power shortages, as it was earlier this summer.

Penrith Industrial BID also met with Mr Stewart to discuss the effect the Penrith Pong was having on the business community in Penrith. Representatives explained that they wanted to see an end to the issue, which was causing concern among members. Mr Stewart also discussed the issue with the Environment Agency and the need for clear deadlines to be set for improvements.

After the meetings, Mr Stewart said: “I think it’s really important that Leo Group and the Environment Agency communicate clearly to residents what the planned improvements for the Omega Proteins site are, when they will be complete and how the work they are doing on site will reduce odours.
“The Penrith Pong is a serious concern for residents and businesses in the area. I am glad to see work is being done to improve the odours and look forward to seeing deadlines for improvements met.”


Rory Stewart Penrith In Bloom

Rory met Louise Armstrong, of Penrith Community Gardeners, to wish the group luck ahead of the RHS Britain in Bloom judging on Friday, 2nd August.

Penrith has a strong history of excelling in both Cumbria in Bloom and Britain in Bloom awards. Last year in the Cumbria in Bloom awards, Penrith won Gold Awards in the ‘Best Large Town’ category and for the for the ‘Penrith Business Improvement District. It also won the most “Improved in the Year Award”, the ‘Best Sustainable Community’ award and was ‘Joint Winner in the ‘Best Overall Town & Urban Community’ Category. Proving that it really is a whole community effort, volunteers involved in the Penrith Poly Tunnel received ‘Britain in Bloom National Certificate of Distinction’ and there were individual awards for ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood Level 5: Outstanding’ for the Poly Tunnel Group, the Stricklandgate Community Garden Project, the Penrith Railway Station Environmental Enhancement Group, the Great Dockray Residents and Business group and Eden Mencap Society.

But as Mrs Armstrong explained to Mr Stewart, it’s not the awards or even the flowers which brighten up Penrith, but the people that matter most.

Mrs Armstrong said: “It’s not about the flowers, it’s about the commitment of the people and the community. Everyone always says, ‘Aren’t the flowers lovely?’. Well yes they are but they are not the main part of it. It’s the people who give their time freely and don’t ask for anything back.

“Britain in Bloom is not about the awards or flowers, it’s about the community – everybody getting together and learning off each other and helping each other.”

After the visit, Mr Stewart said: “The way these gardeners and volunteers have transformed areas of Penrith is brilliant but as Louise says, it is the people behind the work that are the real inspiration. The ongoing brightening up of Penrith every year really goes to show what can be achieved when people come together with a passion. I’d like to say thank you to all the volunteers, various community groups, local businesses and town council for your hard work and drive. And wish them the very best of luck in the Britain in Bloom competition.”


Rory Stewart and Fell pony foal

Rory visited a group of fell ponies on Roundthwaite Common to learn more about their heritage and current pressures breeders feel they are under.

Libby Robinson, of Globetrotter Stud, took Mr Stewart to visit her mares and foals on Roundthwaite Common ahead of an exhibition she has organised, ‘The Heritage of the Hill-bred Fell Pony’, which opens at Rheged on Monday, August 5th, at 4pm.

The exhibition explores the Fell pony’s way of life on the upland fell as semi-wild ponies living in herds all year round with photographs, a short film, artefacts and the work of local artists. Fell ponies are the native breed of hill-bred pony from Cumbria, west of the Pennines. The ponies have been bred on the fells for centuries by farmers with common grazing rights, and it is those very fells that keep the ponies traditional hardiness and sure footedness, which is essential to their use as a working pony.

Ms Robinson spoke with Mr Stewart about the pressure farmers are coming under to take the ponies off the fells in winter and said she believed there is a lack of recognition of the biodiversity created by their grazing habits. She would like to see the Fell pony find the fame that other Cumbrian native breeds like the Herdwick sheep has achieved.

After the visit Mr Stewart said: “Fell ponies demonstrate a really interesting example of some of the tensions between the environment, land management and native breeds. I want Cumbria to be the place that gets the balance right between our objectives in biodiversity and environmental improvement on the one hand and people and native breeds on the other. Through practical compromises I want us to help native breeds, communities and the environment – instead of lurching to the extremes of rewilding on the one hand and intensive farming on the other.

“I would very much encourage anyone who can to visit the exhibition at Rheged to find out more about these beautiful Fell ponies.”

Libby Robinson, of Globetrotter Stud, said: “The Fell pony breed is under threat of losing habitat and the traditional way of breeding so will lose its breed characteristics and hardiness if not supported by the herds on the fells. The aim of the exhibition is to bring to the general public an awareness of the Fell pony and the importance of maintaining its presence on the Cumbrian fells.”