Rory Stewart: ‘Anti-populists need candidates with charisma too’

Rory Stewart   (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Rory Stewart (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Rory Stewart is contemplating the manifestations of evil on Earth. “We often think of evil as a sort of cartoon figure, like Lord Voldemort, rubbing their hands together and plotting the destruction of the world,” says the former soldier, diplomat, academic, Conservative leadership candidate — and author of the most horribly revealing book on Westminster you are likely to read.

“I'm not a theologian, but I have an idea that evil is actually a form of immense carelessness,” he says. “It's a form of immense selfishness. It's cynicism.” His polite demeanour glitches with fury. He is baring his teeth. “It's the utter cynicism that enables the erosion of our standards, our institutions, our conduct in public life and because it's done with a wink and a smile… because it's disguised as clowning… it's actually more dangerous.”

So, no, Rory Stewart is not over Boris Johnson, the man who bested him in the 2019 edition of the ‘Which Old Etonian Gets to Be Prime Minister?’ contest. His antipathy will be familiar to anyone who has tuned in to his podcast, The Rest Is Politics, in which he and Alastair Campbell goad one another to ever more lyrical denouncements of the late-period Tories. It has helped make the former MP for Penrith and the Border something of a centrist hero, greeted with standing ovations at live events (his next such appearance will be at the How the Light Gets In festival this weekend).

But whether or not you buy into the Rory cult, the picture he paints of British politics in his hugely entertaining memoir, Politics on the Edge, is hard to dismiss. Stewart brought a wealth of real-world experience to politics — along with a high-minded, upper-caste ideal of public service that can make him feel like an Imperial throwback. Born in Hong Kong, he was educated at Eton and Oxford, tutored Prince William and Harry, spent a gap year with the Black Watch regiment, walked across Asia, served as a diplomat in Montenegro, governed a province in Iraq, ran an NGO in Afghanistan, wrote a couple of books and worked as an academic at Yale — all before deciding his lofty ambitions could be best served as a Tory MP. Selected as a prospective candidate in 2009 during a brief window when David Cameron was open to talent from outside the usual pool of party activists, he moved to Cumbria and got himself elected. The account of his nine years in Parliament — taking in a long period as a backbencher, then six ministerial positions in four years, Brexit, a maverick leadership bid, and finally expulsion from the party — is an account of disillusion, dysfunction and, finally, despondency.

Rory Stewart (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Rory Stewart (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Is he happier hosting podcasts, I wonder? “I'm obviously more settled. It's better for my family, it's better for my mind. But of course,” he adds, with a slight hint of shame, “I would still rather be Prime Minister.”

We are talking in Stewart’s tasteful home in South Kensington (passed down from his parents, Brian and Sally, who bought it in the1960s). He and his American wife Shoshana and two children, Sasha, 8, and Ivo, 6, have only recently relocated from Jordan, where Stewart was running his charity Give Directly, so the pictures have only just been hung. There is Arabic calligraphy in the dining room and, on the stairs, a winsome oil of the teenage Rory and an imposing painting of Brian: a D-Day veteran and later, Britain’s second most senior spy. Your father has a lot of medals, I remark. “That's right,” he says. “Actually my father for 60 years had more medals than anyone.”

Brian’s death in 2015 is a key moment in the book. When Stewart told his then boss, Liz Truss, that he had spent the weekend by his father’s death bed, she “paused for a moment, nodded and asked when the 25-year environment plan would be ready.” Few of Stewart’s former colleagues come over well. Truss seems aggressively stupid; Michael Gove keeps saying really creepy things. But he insists he is less interested in the personalities than the culture that shapes them — and that he left the worst stuff out. “I sort of wish I had the courage to go one step beyond and really say just how bad this is.”

The book has drawn supportive comments from similarly traumatised ex-MPs, chilly warnings about libel action and invective on social media. He shows me a typical tweet: "A talented, self obsessed, delusional wimp who used his posh privilege to gain everything…” But he’s used to this sort of thing. “People can think I'm a talentless, self-obsessed wimp, but I'm not finding people standing up saying: ‘No no no, we are really serious people. We think very deeply about policy and this country's very well governed.’”

Rory Stewart visits Kabul, Afghanistan in 2002 (Rex)
Rory Stewart visits Kabul, Afghanistan in 2002 (Rex)

The “central paradox”, he feels, is that the skills that allow an individual to rise within a party are the diametric opposite of the qualities one needs to actually run things well. “You're asking people to put on this mask and then take it off again and actually the mask is infected with a poison that corrodes their face,” he says. “They can't take it off. That's the fundamental thing. I mean many of these people as individuals are actually perfectly bright and impressive before they come into parliament. I don't think it's that they're unusually useless human beings.”

Still, he is unabashed about his own ambition. Does he see a future when he might become PM?

“I think it's very, very unlikely,” he half whispers. He is now without party, having been suspended (along with 20 others) by Johnson in September 2019. He also pulled out of his bid to become an independent Mayor of London in 2020 citing Covid and fears changes to the voting system mean he wouldn’t now stand a chance. Indeed, he sees electoral reform — a move towards proportional representation, rather like the system recently adopted in New Zealand — as our best hope of improving things. He thinks it would be “smart politics” for Starmer to push for this. “I think it'll strengthen his position. It gives a sense of idealism — a sense of forward direction.”

It might seem odd to Stewart’s recent fans that he was a Tory at all. “I was a Conservative because I'm basically an ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it’ person,” he says. And yet the Conservative’s record over 13 years has been more like: ‘if it ain’t broke, break it’ — hasn’t it? He broadly agrees — “here and in America, in Israel and all over the world, they're ceasing to conserve or respect the constitution or stand up for moral values” — but only up to a point. He cites gay marriage, net zero and Mayoral devolution as real achievements of the Cameron years and defends austerity like it’s 2013 all over again. “Our economy was in a terrible situation… Gordon Brown had ramped up public spending at exactly the wrong moment...”

It’s the utter cynicism that enables the erosion of our standards and because it’s disguised as clowning, it’s more dangerous

We argue on this point for some time. This, he says, is where he sounds more like a Tory. But he is in favour of a wealth tax, he stresses, and is closer to Labour on social justice (though he is “horrified” about Keir Starmer’s promise to lock up even more people in our overcrowded prisons). Overall, he feels himself more of a classical liberal. “I profoundly trust individuals and I profoundly distrust governments,” he says.

There are plenty who share Stewart’s view of Johnson and yet I’m not sure many would redefine the entire concept of evil around him. Does he think it’s because they have so much in common? Eton, Balliol, overbearing fathers… “We both speak in Latin and Greek,” he says. That too!

“Yeah, I suppose that's what makes me so angry,” he says. “He had all the privileges that I had. He sat through the same sermons with people saying: we have these privileges and in return we should be giving back through parliament. He stands for some idea of Victorian Britain or the virtue of the Romans or the Ancient Greeks. The fact is he is a total disgusting betrayal of everything that the best Victorians, the best Greeks and the best Romans would have cared about.”

Rory Stewart and his wife Shoshana Clark arrive for the first televised debate between Conservative Party leadership contenders, 2019 (Rob Pinney/LNP/REX)
Rory Stewart and his wife Shoshana Clark arrive for the first televised debate between Conservative Party leadership contenders, 2019 (Rob Pinney/LNP/REX)

But look. Here he is, taking up the oxygen of our conversation. We do talk more, on the role of the media in pushing populism — and the difficulty of selling his brand of progressive centrism. “I mean I've just been interviewing the prime minister of New Zealand, Chris Hipkins,” he says. “Everything he said was really sensible and yet of course, even I was slightly thinking: that's a bit boring. So you know, I'm suddenly thinking, at least Boris Johnson's funny. Where's the charisma?” It's important, he feels, that “the anti-populists are able to find people with charisma.”

Someone like… you, Rory? His stage appearances have been greeted with whoops and cheers. Isn’t that rather enticing? “Less so for me. I mean I think I've got a fragile ego. I think I'm vain. I think I'm thin-skinned. I'm all those kind of things”.

And yet you still think you'd be a great prime minister.

I’ve just been interviewing the prime minister of New Zealand and I’m suddenly thinking, at least Boris Johnson is funny

“Yeah,” he says. “I'm not sure I can be certain I'd be a great prime minister. But I definitely would have loved to be Prime Minister in that period where I was running against Boris Johnson.” He runs through the challenges we would have faced: the Brexit deal; the end of Trump; Covid; making the more marginalised parts of the country “live again”. ”I mean these are so much more important than anything I can do outside of politics and it would've been the greatest privilege of my life. But you're quite right. I might've been useless at it.”

Rory Stewart is among the speakers at the How the Light Gets In festival at Kenwood House, September 23-24;