Interview with The Times

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.”

Curriculum vitae

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.

Quick fire

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

Print Friendly and PDF