EVENING STANDARD INTERVIEW
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.”