A serious contender for serious times
Published by The i paper (27th May, 2019)
Theresa May’s failed premiership is finally over. Now we must endure weeks of watching a motley collection of Tories jostling for the top job, their ambitions and egos often running far ahead of limited talents. They chuck out promises to seduce the small and elderly party electorate that will pick our next prime minister, with unicorn pledges to break the parliamentary logjam on Brexit and much talk of tax cuts. Never mind the collapse of social care: Dominic Raab wants to blow £25bn on slashing 5p from income tax while Jeremy Hunt will cut corporation tax and double defence spending. Great news for gun manufacturers.
Boris Johnson is seen as the one to beat, although we can take solace from the recent history of favourites failing to win this particular race. But how can any serious person think this repellent chancer is the answer to questions on how to unite a divided party, broaden its appeal to voters, restore respect to politics and salve the festering wounds of a pained nation? He was a dismal mayor of London and a disastrous foreign secretary, who has proved himself devoid of principle in his private, professional and public life. He has one sole driving vision: to see himself walk through the doors of Downing Street as prime minister.
Unfortunately the key to this ballot is where candidates stand on Brexit, not what they can offer their country with its many pressing problems. The farce of the Euro-elections and return of Nigel Farage rattles the Conservatives almost as much as questions over his sugar daddy rattles the Brexit Party boss. But will this debacle jolt Tories back into reality or, far more likely, drive them into fresh panic as they pander to nationalism? Already many moderates are flirting with the idea of backing Johnson as the lesser of two evils, such are their fears of a Raab triumph.
They would be wise to think again and fight for their beliefs, unlike too often in the recent past (with a handful of noble exceptions). But sadly, a party once so focused on power seems incapable of seeing that cuddling up to populists and chasing the nativist vote ends badly for moderate forces, driving away centrists while always being outflanked on the right. Just look at Spain, where the traditional party of the right just shrivelled, losing voters on both flanks. Or the expected results of the European parliamentary elections.
Given the dark clouds of political failure that cling to this parliament, there is strong argument for a new generation. So Matt Hancock, the youngest declared candidate at 40 years old, is selling himself as candidate of the future. Never mind that his dismal performance at health makes you question his ability to run a bath, let alone the nation. Nor that he seems like an excitable schoolboy with his efforts to pose as a technology guru. No, his main problem is more profound: he sees politics as a game, a matter of spin over substance, and thus symbolises much that has gone wrong at Westminster.
Meanwhile the most intriguing of the younger candidates is a character who seems to have stepped out of the Victorian era. Rory Stewart ticks many wrong boxes: he went to Eton and Oxford, looks geeky, talks posh, was a teenage member of the Labour Party and voted Remain. Yet at a time when democracy is in crisis with dwindling faith in our political system, he is a man of extreme achievement. He has been in the Army, Foreign Office and a Harvard professor, written superb books, governed chunks of Iraq, run a charity and famously walked across Afghanistan at the height of its instability.
Stewart is bold, smart and an original thinker – and he does not need to make classical quips to remind us of his brains. I have found his views on issues such as aid, foreign policy and prison reform unusually well-formed for a politician, even when I disagree, since they reach deep beneath the surface and tribal sloganising.
He seems interested in ideas and people, not just positioning. Shortly before becoming an MP he lamented that ‘Churchill has been replaced by Bertie Wooster’ in a scathing article on the state of British politics. It was seen as a dig at David Cameron but would be so much truer if the blustering Johnson wins power. His article also asked: ‘Why do people stand as politicians if they have no policies?’ – a very good question for some of the Tory crown pretenders.
Yet it takes far more than a strong back story to make a convincing political leader. There is, however, something refreshing about Stewart’s directness and openness compared with the usual dissembling. He has never hidden his desire to be prime minister. He told friends his threat to resign as justice minister if he failed to reduce drug use and violence in prisons within a year came from dismay that politicians rarely put their jobs on the line over policy. And he has, to his great credit, said he could not serve under Johnson since it would be an endorsement of a disastrous no-deal Brexit.
All of those engaged in politics – practitioners, commentators and voters – love to complain about perceived lack of seriousness in British politics. Stewart seems that rare beast in the Westminster bear-pit: someone of deep substance, a grown-up who has wandered into the noisy kindergarten of Brexit-infected politics. Perhaps this means he has no real chance in this contest of doing much more than burnishing his credentials as foreign secretary. Yet how curious that it is this character, a man who used to regret being born in the wrong age, who is offering pointers to a politics of substance and transparency that we need so desperately in the future.