Rory Stewart has been an atypical Conservative politician. In his youth he had been briefly a Labour Party member and a second lieutenant in the army. After university he worked for the Diplomatic Service, travelled, wrote books, worked for non-governmental organization, and took academic posts.
Stewart’s recently published book Politics On the Edge, 2023 provides an account of his subsequent political career.
Rory Stewart – political career
Stewart joined the Conservative Party in 2009, after an appeal by David Cameron for people who had not previously been involved in politics to become Members of Parliament and was elected as an MP in 2010.
Having campaigned for Remain in the Brexit referendum, Stewart subsequently supported Theresa May’s compromise Brexit deal, and regarded Boris Johnson as unfit to be Prime Minister.
When Theresa May resigned in 2019, Stewart decided to enter the Conservative Party leadership election.
Stewart was the best performer in a TV debate amongst the aspiring Conservative leadership candidates, according to an opinion poll of the general public. However, not enough Conservative MPs supported Rory Stewart to allow him to make it into the final ballot against Boris Johnson.
Stewart resigned from government when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, and he was thrown out of the Conservative Parliamentary group for his opposition to Boris Johnson’s threat of a no deal Brexit.
Stewart then left the Conservative Party, bringing his political career to an end after 10 years. His vicissitudes are emblematic of a time when the greater political division was no longer between left and right, but between populists and mainstream politics.
The most interesting parts of his book are when he describes the faults of our political system.
As an MP Stewart thought that he could contribute to the legislative process, but he found out that it was difficult to understand the rationale behind new policies and laws, as both “descended via the whips from an Olympus hidden in the clouds. And I had little idea on how policies were composed on that holy mountain.”
When it came to voting “MPs were expected to be loyal to the party; and votes would rarely entail a free exercise of judgment.” Parliamentary speeches were not valued in relation to the ability to analyse a problem or explore both sides of an argument.
Having specific expertise did not seem to qualify for membership of Parliamentary committees as “The whips had apparently been told to exclude anyone with an interest in a subject from a bill committee, for fear they would ask awkward questions.”
When Cameron chose ministers it was not because he relied on their advice, trusted their judgment, or spoke well in Parliament. Cameron mostly promoted “team players”, that is “someone who parroted the party line with fervour, never rebelled, and was never abashed.”
Even under Theresa May leadership Stewart felt that ministerial appointments were often just “symbolic gifts in exchange for loyalty”.
For five years Stewart was part of government, holding six different ministerial posts between 2015 and 2019.
Stewart felt that ministerial reshuffles were too frequent and at too short intervals: it was impossible to get a good grasp of what the issues were, before being moved on. Frequent reshuffles also resulted in frequent reversals of policy.
“An unhappy lot”
Stewart describes MPs as an unhappy lot. Many had professional backgrounds and, in previous roles, we “often felt valued, secure in our work, been reasonably honest, and made friends. Such things were more difficult in Parliament.”
According to Michael Deacon’s review of this book in The Telegraph, 3 September 2023: “Stewart was never going to be prime minister. He had far too many glaring flaws … his speeches made it sound as if he’d given actual thought to the subject at hand, rather than just reciting a list of crowd-pleasing soundbites scripted by a strategist. Most damaging of all, however, was the inescapable impression that he said things because he genuinely meant them, rather than because a pollster had told him they would be popular. As a result, he was entirely unsuited to modern politics.”
Politics could have changed for the better, if Rory Stewart had won the Conservative leadership election in 2019.