Stewart for PM, Gove for chancellor

Published by UnHerd (31st May, 2019)

The 25th anniversary of the Blair-Brown pact is a reminder of the speed of change. Not just in restaurants, with Granita long gone, along with its modernist menu that would now feel distinctly old hat. But also in politics, since the era of triangulation to woo floating voters from rival tribes has been replaced by the howl of populism and fury of Twitter.

So it is curious that in the early skirmishes of this strange Tory leadership contest, with new candidates emerging daily and seeking to grasp the poisoned chalice of delivering Brexit, a most unlikely figure has emerged from the pack by offering a fresh take on social media.

Yet Rory Stewart, a fogeyish character who seems to have stepped from the pages of a Victorian novel, has shown far more grasp of modern campaigning than his slicker rivals.

This was unexpected. We knew that Stewart has a brilliant mind, as befits a former Harvard professor, combined with that astonishing backstory that took him from a stint in the army to walking across Afghanistan and running chunks of Iraq. The bigger surprise is how well his charm, his confidence, his intellect and his optimism comes across in those homespun video diaries of visits to streets and parks.

It is hard to see any of his rivals talking about ‘energy, compassion and love’ in their sales pitch to fellow Tories. Stewart is offering authenticity, boldness and humanity in a contest filled with candidates defined by calculation and caution. He has shown he places ambition below principle by ruling out a cabinet post if Boris Johnson triumphs. Little wonder he has generated such a positive response, with warm words and hundreds of thousands of hits.

He is a true Tory moderniser, with his strong sense of tradition, passion for institutions and belief in Burke’s ‘little platoons’ rather than grand reform. Some on the Right sneer that he is only appealing to non-Tory voters – just as ultra-leftists dismissed Blair as a closet Conservative, forgetting that to win elections you must break out of tribal boundaries. Besides, even ardent Brexiteers have professed their admiration for his brains and wit.

The problem for Stewart is not winning a general election, since he could crush Corbyn. Nor even to woo Tory members, since I suspect he might appeal far more to associations than the flashy, untrustworthy favourite Boris Johnson. No, his biggest hurdle is convincing MPs looking in fear at the return of Nigel Farage that he is their saviour, regardless of all the evidence that appeasing populists proves disastrous for centre-right parties.

So maybe Stewart should take Michael Gove down to Afghan Kitchen, just round the corner from where Blair and Gordon Brown did their infamous deal in Islington, and persuade him over a hearty lamb chalau to become his Chancellor. Gove has also started his campaign strongly. And what a formidable pair they might prove, especially since the prime minister could rein in his chancellor’s more gung-ho instincts on foreign policy and force him to concentrate on a domestic agenda. They would certainly make politics more interesting – and might even restore a little faith in our tarnished political system.

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