The Rise Of Rory Stewart Is The Big Story In The Tory Leadership Race

There is nothing obviously nasty about Rory Stewart, and in that sense he seems a politician out of time.
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Right now, Rory Stewart is standing out. Granted, this currently amounts to some people getting a bit excited about him on the internet, and we may have all forgotten him by next month. But the growing interest in him says something quite profound about character traits that have largely been absent from British public life in recent times, traits that millions of Britons feel instinctively impressed by.

The three most well-known politicians in the country are probably Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage. In terms of the way he holds himself – and that is all most people, who will not look up his voting record or the details of his adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, have to go on – Stewart has very little in common with any of those three individuals. In the same way that May, Corbyn and Farage reveal the essence of their character and outlook in the briefest of television interviews, the short clips Stewart has posted online, of him speaking directly to camera and to members of the public, have intrigued those disappointed and disillusioned with the country’s current political leaders.

Firstly, Stewart is clearly deeply interested in other people and the world around him. In his public displays of support for the outgoing prime minister’s Brexit deal he displayed an understanding of the UK’s ‘difficult’ relationship with Europe over the past fifty years, and the cultural identity element to the Leave vote that he can only have gained from having meaningful conversations with ordinary people. Conversations in which he no doubt genuinely listened, and whilst he probably argued back when faced by supporters of a hard Brexit, he gives the impression of a man who pays close, respectful attention when being spoken to.

I doubt whether May, Corbyn or Farage have much interest in one-on-one conversations with members of the public: none of them are naturally inquisitive about what other people have to say, especially those from rival political movements. Indeed, one could argue that all three of them rose to prominence because of their close-mindedness, which they pitched successfully to voters as conviction, principle and strength.

In the same way I cannot imagine that any of them ever read books that cause them to change their minds, or indeed have any desire for their minds to be changed at all. All three decided long ago what they thought about the world, and subsequently that properly listening to those with different opinions was a pointless exercise. May is leaving the stage and there are many on the left who dearly wish that Corbyn would follow her, but both are in a tragic sense the perfect Twitter politicians, oblivious to those outside their own bubble and having perfected the engaged-but-vacant stare.

(Watch Jeremy Corbyn closely the next time he is asked a question about Brexit or antisemitism in his party. The Prime Minister has been much derided as the Maybot, but in instances such as these Corbyn’s robot is uncanny, as he trots out the same old lines carefully programmed into him by advisors who appear to have near total control at the top of the party. How there are people still genuinely inspired by the Labour leader’s speech at this stage does boggle the mind somewhat.)

Stewart speaks openly of compromise, and in glowing terms rather than the begrudging manner exuded by the Prime Minister, and I have no doubt that he will win over many who were sceptical of the May approach, because the tone he strikes when discussing the Brexit end game is remarkably bright and optimistic whilst at the same time rooted in realism. He does not quite want to call Boris Johnson a liar just yet, but has hinted that he has first-hand experience of the former foreign secretary’s mendacity and Stewart has the rhetorical skills to expose Johnson in a television debate setting if he so chooses.

He spoke recently about his admiration for the Crow Indian chief Plenty Coups (1848-1932):

‘The reason he’s my great hero is that he was the only one of the great Native American leaders who instead of pretending that the future of their people lay in a suicidal fight against the Anglo-Saxon arrival decided that what he needed to do was reach out, educate his people, secure a very, very good deal for the Crow Indians… and he did it because he was unflinchingly able to face reality...’

Safe to say that none of May, Corbyn or Farage would see Plenty Coups as a hero. For different reasons, ranging from a lack of appreciation of his intellectual dexterity, to an understanding of his actions as those of a sell-out in the face of oppressive colonisers, they would be variously confused and appalled by what someone like Plenty Coups represented.

May and Corbyn have spoken about their admiration for Geoffrey Boycott and Tony Benn respectively, men known for their stubbornness, embraced in the public admiration nowadays because of their over-the-top displays of obstinacy during their careers. They were the very opposite of compromisers, and lacked imagination in ways that would be much clearer to Stewart, who would no doubt perceive the dogged, flawed spirit of Boycott and Benn living on in the expostulations of Mark Francois and Steve Baker.

Perhaps above all there is nothing obviously nasty about Rory Stewart, and in that sense he seems a politician out of time. There is nastiness everywhere you look: May’s hostile environment and Windrush, the antisemites that support Corbyn, and the fervent nationalism within parts of the Faragist Brexit movement. It is hard to imagine genuinely nasty people ever voting for Stewart, which says as much about his persona as it does about the full range of worthwhile voting options currently available to the most malicious amongst us.

The retort to all of this will be that politics is above all about policy, and that whether or not Rory Stewart is a nice, thoughtful bloke is beside the point. Of course it is true that what politicians do matters more ultimately more than what they say, but remember that we live in the Trump age. Much like Johnson and Farage, Trump’s outward displays of character were perceived by millions as the reason to vote for him. All three are brash disruptors and it matters little therefore that none of them have anything to say when pressed on detail. Stewart says that he is a ‘Trumpian anti-Trump’ in that he wants to use tools exploited by the populists, like social media, to push a very non-populist message about compromise and appealing to those who have not previously voted for the Conservatives.

He recognises the problems there are in the social care system, and wants to make a response to them a major part of his pitch, whilst also advocating for a citizens’ assembly to help solve the Brexit crisis. I happen to think that he is remarkably naive in thinking that the passing of May-style Brexit deal would be the end of Nigel Farage, as he suggested on Peston this week, but nonetheless he wants to talk about policy, and understands the importance of getting tangible things done, decisions made, and laws passed when in office. This is a message that has been lacking from frontline politics in recent times, and those dazed and depressed by the inaction and vacuity of both the Brexit right and the Corbyn left are craving something non-partisan, interesting and inventive. Stewart appears to understand this, and as a result, support for him continues to grow deeper, and spread wider.


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