Prospect Magazine Interview
Article first published in Prospect by Tom Clark on 12 April 2019.
Shortly before the referendum, I recall reading Matthew Parris in the Times arguing that a Leave vote would “destroy” moderate conservatism in this country. At the time, this struck me as columnist’s hyperbole. This week, however, I met with prisons minister, one-nation Tory and the unlikely star salesman for Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Rory Stewart, and found him gripped with a very real fear that something like the Parris prediction could soon come to pass.
Gently spoken, measured yet precise, Stewart arrived in parliament in 2010 with a CV that was more Class of 1890 than 1990: Eton, Black Watch, Tutor to the Royal Princes, Oxford, Foreign Office, adventuring and travel writing in Afghanistan and then running provinces in occupied Iraq, all before he was much over 30. As a youngster he had supported Labour, but moved over to the Tories, he says, because of the doctrinaire way that Blair and even Brown talked about the Bush-era wars: “their neo-conservatism made me a Conservative… it was seeing how far their rhetoric was from the reality…”
That might seem peculiar given the uncritical pro-American belligerence of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard in these years, but Stewart is right to identify a much older Tory tradition than defines itself by dealing in practicalities, not abstractions, and above all else—in speech and deed—facing the facts unflinchingly, and, as he puts it, “dealing with the world as it is.”
This loyal minister openly worries that even mainstream Tories could soon lapse into a “no deal, never deal” stance which could finally kill off this tradition for good. In the looming leadership election, which he does not rule out running in, he fears ordinarily pragmatic cabinet ministers could compete by advocating crashing out, on the assumption that after a bump and a bounceback we “could get back to being a moderate, centre-right party.” It won’t work though, he warns, because a no deal Brexit would not only be “a statement about your attitude to economics, rural communities, manufacturing industry, the Union,” it would also be “a statement about your attitude to reality.” The attitude the Tories are flirting with isn’t, he says, Conservative at all: “the mindset is ‘Trump’.”
Fittingly, I end up interviewing the greatest walker in parliament—he’s been known to get up before dawn to walk between Oxford and London in a day—on the move. He shuns a ministerial car, he tells me, not out of puritanism but because he can’t stand London traffic. Sensible enough. But it means I’m left scribbling notes darting along Commons corridors, Underground tunnels, then on District and Victoria line carriages, and in the ticket office at Euston. With some interviewees, the conversation and the notes would have been extremely scrappy as a result, but not with Stewart. Perhaps because clarity with language is almost an obsession, something he sees as inseparable from his politics.
Orwell dedicates the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier to turning fire on cranky, sloganeering Marxists who can’t connect with the real working class and their problems, because they prefer playing “the pea-and-thimble trick with those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis and synthesis.” Stewart vents a very similar frustration about bullshit in contemporary politics, but worries that it now blights the Right as much as the Left. Although by temperament the opposite of a rager, he comes close to fury as he lists the many poisonous consequences he sees flowing from political language that doesn’t connect with practical realities. Too few thinktanks and journalists, he says, have a real idea of what policy is: “if only we did it the way Australia did it… the way Norway did it …” or would embrace some other shiny new “bright idea.”
On his own prison beat, his starting point is the English system as it actually is, “the real prisoner, the real officer, the real buildings,” the “sheets and blankets that have to be delivered.” He likes to identify things that should be done but aren’t, like writing good guidance for officers about “how you search a cell, how you get the sniffer dogs to the right place, that’s what really what makes a difference.” But the culture of government “hates this”: it wants novelty and buzzwords. He sees this going on right across Whitehall. In Dfid’s 400-page report on the bloodshed in South Sudan, he says the names of the ‘Dinker’ and ‘Nuer’ tribes do not crop up, nor do the ‘oxen’ they’ve been slaughtering each other over; and the ‘guns’ with which the killing is done are only mentioned once: “That’s what matters: but nobody talks about.” By contrast, “the word ‘governance’ appears 140 times, ‘accountability’ 180 times, sustainability 190 times… you know the person you are writing about controls a militia and has presided over a massacre, but you are writing a document saying he is going to guarantee the ‘equitable distribution of resources down to the lowest provincial level with zero-tolerance towards public corruption’…”
Coming back to Brexit, through buzzwords about sovereignty and independent trade policies, he now sees many a Conservative being “pacified by a clever line.” Although he is quoting Auden here, which will make him a bit too “clever” for some tastes himself, he brims with passion about the peril of being bewitched by warm words about ‘just getting out’ or ‘simply finding our own way in the world.’ When others—as David Davis did on Thursday—say no deal is “perfectly manageable” and “can be done,” Stewart answers the reassuring generalities with granular and alarming specifics.
“I say to no deal man,” he says gearing up, “’How about my dairy farmer?’ And they say, ‘well over the medium term it will all adjust: the currency will move, structures will shift, tariffs will adjust, he will find another job’… So I have to say, ‘this is Thirsk Milk. It has a £4.5m contract to sell milk to the continent. My farmer, Steve… has got 65 cows. He has been promised by Thirsk Milk that they will buy his milk at 26p a litre; his costs of production are 18p … In the event of a no deal Brexit, the tariffs go up: 40 per cent… meanwhile liquid milk is flowing in [to the continent] from Ireland at zero tariff… Thirsk Milk factory’s production line stops… Steve has the milk on his farm, 6,000 litres every day… he can only hold it for 24 hours… cows need to be milked… he’s got to get rid of it… price falls… 16p, 14p… below the cost of production… but Steve is in debt to the Cumberland building society. He’s got to make his interest payments. He makes the very difficult decision to sell his cows… but the debts are not covered by the sale of his cows… Steve sells his farm… somebody buys it as a second home… this is repeated right the way across Cumbria… Steve is 46 years old, his family have been farmers for nine or 10 generations, he’s the governor of the local school, his kids are in the local school, which has only got 15 people in it. But he’s gone, all the farms and families in the valley are gone, they’re not coming back. And what’s he going to do? Where’s he going to go? You talk about macroeconomic readjustment, I’m talking about his whole life, his land gone, his cows gone, that he’s bred, his own herd. And with that the landscape goes, returns to wilderness, the dry stone walls go.’”
Lest I think that such chilling tales only apply in rural constituencies such as Stewart’s in Penrith, he adds at the end “and I could tell exactly the same story about the guy who works at the Rolls-Royce factory in the west midlands.”
Surely, I venture, if it’s really going to be that bad, plenty of senior Conservatives will in the end rally to speak up against it. But Stewart isn’t confident. There is, he says, an “absolutism” creeping into the rhetoric, that makes people “embarrassed” to talk about the compromises than any negotiated Brexit involves. His willingness to acknowledge has become rare. Which is why he now finds himself so regularly put up on TV to explain, though he voted Remain, why the prime minister’s deal is the best way to strike a balance between the desire to “honour the mandate,” gain some control over the borders, while protecting trade and jobs as best as you can.
That certainly sounds Tory enough to me. But this week the majority of the party’s MPs—100-odd outright rebels, and 80-odd abstainers—declined to back May’s request for the Article 50 extension, even though it has become a pre-requisite to any negotiated Brexit deal. So one can see exactly why Stewart is worried.
He has shown a taste for softening May’s Brexit somewhat, by backing Ken Clarke’s proposal for a customs union on the last indicative votes, but he is still adamant that her basic approach is right: “The only logical way of dealing with a country that appears to be split almost 50/50 is through a moderate Brexit: leave the political institutions of the EU, but remain very close economically and diplomatically.” For such reasons he is strongly against a second referendum, and—I think out of sincerity, rather than ambition—now describes himself as “a moderate Brexiteer.”
He would “never” vote for no deal, and it’s pretty plain to me he doesn’t think he could even be a candidate for a party that made no deal its manifesto policy either. And Stewart clearly sees the possibility that this could happen soon. Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson, perhaps Andrea Leadsom and others will imminently be fighting a leadership contest in which—thanks to the deep Euro-scepticism of the voluntary party that ultimately picks the new leader—the crown could easily go to whoever dares to take the hardest anti-Brussels line. Parliament will still be gridlocked, and so a new PM might very well write their manifesto and take their chance on an early election. If the sort of bottom-up No Confidence votes that have been snapping at the heels of the likes of Dominic Grieve could be combined with top-down pressure to support a no deal platform, perhaps the Tory party really could be purged of dissenters until the point where it becomes a no deal sect.
I air my own hunch that the affection of local activists for their MPs would preserve some diversity, but Stewart seems much less sure: “very sensible moderate colleagues who basically agree with me that a no deal Brexit would be a very bad thing, are under so much pressure from local parties, the associations, from the pressures from the leadership to feel that maybe it will be OK… maybe we can advocate for it, it won’t be the end of the world. They don’t feel as I do that there is a logical, inescapable, unbreakable connection” between “deliberately severing all connections with Europe” and the sort of party you are.
“Anybody who is on my side of this must rule out a no deal Brexit… if they advocate for it, they are essentially saying we want to be Ukip… and we’re saying goodbye to young people, goodbye to Remain voters, and goodbye to the centre ground of British politics.” OK, he worries nobody is daring to spell out these truths, and so I have to ask: are you thinking of running then? “My answer for that is that I desperately want a standard bearer for this cause. I’m not sure I’m the person. I have many disadvantages. I’m not in the cabinet. I may be too outspoken. I’m an Old Etonian. I mean there are any number of things you could say against me.”
That is, as Westminster watchers always describe it, “a non-denial.” But he must know that if he did run, the odds against him in today’s Europhobic Tory party would be very long indeed, so I believe him when he adds: “What I want is a team that believes in a modern centre-ground. And I want to be part of that team.” But he has a serious difficulty, which is apparent when I ask who among those at the Tory top table could actually lead such a team: “I think that is an issue. I think people are feeling a bit sort of sat on. I hope that the [Easter] break will give people a chance to rediscover their courage, their confidence, their belief and their values.” As it is, “we’re being made to feel when we say there are problems with a no deal Brexit that we’re the extremists, we’re the fringe.”
That it seems, is where the Tory party has left this thoughtful and loyal minister of the Crown. He doesn’t relish the coming war: at the start of our conversation, he is fretting about whether the fractious mood of the moment has led him to be ruder than he would ordinarily have been about Boris Johnson, in another interview with the Times. But listening to him, I feel I was wrong to assume, three years ago, that Matthew Parris was exaggerating when he asserted that a Leave vote could turn out to be terminally ruinous for his Tory tribe.