What is a Rory Stewart? Where does he come from? Where is he going? What does he believe? Why is he vlogging sweet nothings about Brexit from the shrubbery of my local park? Why does he so often wear the expression of a man who’s been sent back in time to warn his younger self that the calls were coming from inside the house?
All good questions, and ones we’ve been forced to confront in the three weeks following the miserable end of Theresa May’s miserable prime ministership. Nothing does boutique hideousness quite like a Tory leadership contest. 2019 has seen the usual crew of rabid millionaires slug it out for the chance to finally “do Brexit” and boast about their personal histories of drug use, like tedious mature students who want you to know that they can still remember when three pills were a tenner. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid – it must be a good time to do your weekly shop in hell, because all the devils are here.
But then there was Rory. Sweet, courteous, opium-huffing Rory. The International Development Secretary formally launched his leadership campaign on the 11th of June, in easily the most steampunk fashion of any of his major rivals. Under the circus tent lights, he spoke at length about seriousness, action and conviction. Sunday’s big Channel 4 debate saw candidates (minus Johnson) take to the stage to outline their visions of the immediate future. With the reviews now in, it is widely agreed that Stewart masterfully repeated what has done well for him so far: sound less insanely dogmatic than the others with a dash of winning eccentricity, and a lengthy soliloquy on “believing in the bin”. John Rentoul, the Independent’s veteran commentator, was impressed.
Rentoul is not Stewart’s only fan. Since entering the race, he’s racked up endorsements from pundits across the centrist/right wing spectrum. James O’Brien, Jane Merrick, David Aaronovitch and – it’s impossible to type this without stopping to chef’s kiss my fingers – Location, Location, Location’s own Kirstie Allsopp. The normally theatrically sceptical O’Brien even tweeted that, for good or ill, Stewart would "annihilate" Jeremy Corbyn in a General Election. Trifles like "evidence" don't really matter. Stewart is simply the humane, humorous (or "refreshingly ridiculous") compromise candidate in a lineup of vampires, ghouls and thinly veiled men's rights activists.
It’s true that no one has ever denied Stewart’s compulsive weirdness. The almost psychosexual fixation with walking, which once produced an admittedly quite good book; his pooterish, slightly fastidious air and cultivated sense of eccentricity; and, of course, the vlogs. Stewart also has the added benefit of "life experience" – that rarest of political career elixirs – though an entertaining New Yorker profile from 2010 throws some doubt on his larger claims. The narrative goes: after a negligible period as an officer in the Black Watch, running an arts charity in Afghanistan, serving as a mid-level administrator-cum-diplomat in Iraq and very briefly teaching at Harvard, here is a Tory with a bit of substance and compassion. Someone to bridge the yawning chasm at the heart of the country's politics and unite the rank and file of the Good and Sensible.
But even the best laid narratives can become hostage to reality. After the leadership debate, Stewart is now the bookies' second favourite to become the next prime minister – but few MPs in his party have come out to back him. Then there’s also the small fact that the whole confection might just be complete nonsense. It doesn’t matter how many pundits wish very hard upon a lucky star, Stewart might not be the One Nation messiah they’ve all been waiting for.
Sure, he might have briefly toyed with going to live in a real life council estate for a couple of years to see a bit of live action British poverty (spoiler: he didn’t), but that does that really make up for things like years of loyal support for austerity and a wider parliamentary voting record that shows the apparently independently minded MP voting in line with his party on almost every issue of consequence, including Brexit? It’s unclear what Man of the People could unthinkingly back the bedroom tax, but that’s a thought that leads on to more scrutiny than the Stewart insurgency narrative can happily sustain. It’s all well and good to say that you’d like to better understand British poverty. It’s quite another to merrily collude with policies that have deepened it in such startling fashion.
Though Stewart has made much of not being Boris Johnson, there are more similarities than differences. Both are immensely wealthy scions of minor aristocratic families, shoved through the same prep school/Eton/Oxford conveyor belt. Both are self conscious eccentrics prone to quoting the Classics (though Stewart paid lip service to modernity by memorising T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland as a teenager). Both have a fun habit of perceiving themselves as Great Men of destiny, bound for distinction in public service. The New Yorker profile sees Stewart, half mockingly, compare himself to Alexander the Great.
Alright, ambition isn’t a capital offence. Neither is reading Plutarch. It is – as Stewart would no doubt agree – action that defines a man. But it’s unclear exactly what his would be as PM, at least in any meaningful way. So far, his grand policy announcements have amounted to walking lots, listening, talking more about Brexit and a rebooted compulsory National Service, where every 16-year-old in the nation would spend a month gaining invaluable "learning skills", presumably skills like walking, listening and talking more about Brexit.
If it seems baffling that so many in a position to know better have coronated Stewart as the “adult in the contest”, it shouldn’t. Meagre things like policy and coherent ideas are almost worthless in the marketplace of ideas when faced with the really important stuff, such as “character” and sensibility. Stewart is in many ways the ideal candidate for this kind of context; a slightly dotty toff with a neat sideline in earnest self-deprecation. The realities of his politics and their consequences don’t matter here. He’s just a good sort of the amiable familiar kind, without any of the naked immorality of Boris Johnson or the deliberately careless crudeness of Nigel Farage.
When it comes right down to it, Rory Stewart is probably one of the least personally objectionable Conservatives in the UK. This is a useful thing to know in the terrible instance that you were to be stuck in a lift with him. But politics, as the pundit class have loved to scream over the years, is not a personality contest. We are living in a relentlessly grim present with the prospect of an immediate future that may well become a kind of hell. In no small part, we are here because of the party in which Rory Stewart has been an unwaveringly loyal cog for the past decade. Being its least worst member shouldn’t qualify him for even faint praise.