Churchill has been replaced by Bertie Wooster. So lamented Rory Stewart in a short and scathing commentary on British politics written in March 2007 for The New York Times.
Three years later, Stewart was himself elected, somewhat unexpectedly, to the House of Commons. Observers reckoned he had more in common with Churchill than with Wooster.
His early life was crowded with incident: he had been under fire in Iraq, walked 6,000 miles across Asia, written a successful book about the Afghan section of that walk, become a professor at Harvard and sold the rights to his story to Brad Pitt, who was reported to be planning a major motion picture with Orlando Bloom as the hero.
And now Stewart is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs. Just now, this means he is floods minister. His gift for being on the spot as dramatic events unfold has not deserted him.
His vast constituency of Penrith and the Border has been grievously afflicted by the floods. Even in normal times it can take two hours to drive from one end of the seat to the other, which is the largest in England and includes 40 miles of the border with Scotland.
We have seen Stewart popping up all over this great expanse of country in a high-visibility jacket, paying tribute in an earnest tone to the emergency services, including contingents from as far away as Cornwall, and to his own constituents. There has been a total absence of Churchillian bombast, and a palpable concern for people whose livelihoods have been wrecked.
It falls to him as well as to his boss, Liz Truss, the Environment Secretary, to defend the Tories’ record since 2010 on flood defence. He has been denounced in the Guardian by George Monbiot: a rite of passage without which one cannot be said, in environmental circles, to have arrived.
Yet some people think Stewart’s junior ministerial role is a come-down, or even a sell-out.
They say he has been nobbled by George Osborne, who saw in him a dangerous rival for the Tory leadership, or at least a vexatious critic, so silenced him by offering him a derisory post in which he will be unable to shine. “He’s been buried for five years,” one of them said.
These critics observe that Stewart had recently been elected to the chairmanship of the Defence Select Committee, an exceptional achievement against half a dozen rivals with longer parliamentary experience, and a post from which he could have delivered authoritative criticisms of British foreign policy, notably in Syria. He is a man who values his independence, so it is odd to see him submitting to the restrictions of ministerial office, where he can no longer speak his mind.
In his parliamentary seat, agriculture is of cardinal importance. That, the critics say, is part of Osborne’s cleverness: he offered a post which Stewart’s constituents would be displeased to learn he had turned down.
But since Stewart is deeply interested in the environment, and has planted thousands of trees at his family house at Crieff, in Perthshire, this was also an appropriate portfolio for him.
And if one looks at Stewart’s career before and after he entered politics, it is possible to detect a thread of consistency. In 2007, when at the height of his early fame he appeared on Desert Island Discs, he was asked whether he felt most at home in the shalwar kameez and chitrali cap he wore to walk across Afghanistan, or in the suit he wears in London.
Stewart replied: “I think that you owe it to any society you’re in to try to fit in.” He added that the countries he had walked through – Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nepal – “are often very polite, well-mannered societies”.
The same can be said of the Conservative Party. It might at any moment subside into a civil war of unbridled savagery, but it is also a very polite, well-mannered society, into which is it is necessary to fit if one wishes to get anywhere.
By accepting the post of Parliamentary Under Secretary, Stewart was indicating his willingness to fit into the Tory tribe, and also to learn the ways of Whitehall. It is a sign of his ambition, not his submissiveness, that he has done so.
There may be something not displeasing to him in the mortifications of junior ministerial life. His travels in Asia entailed comparable mortifications. He tested himself by seeing if he could stand up to various ordeals which a lazy person would have avoided.
Stewart was born in Hong Kong in January 1973. His father, Brian Stewart, was a Scot whose own father had been a jute merchant in Calcutta, and who himself spent much of his life overseas, first in the Black Watch during the Second World War, then as a colonial servant during the Malaysian emergency, and afterwards as an MI6 officer in various far eastern postings.
Rory was sent home to be educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, and at Eton. Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was several years ahead of him in the same house, recalls that even as a 13-year-old, Stewart was “strikingly and noticeably able”.
He was from the first a boy with an intense literary sensibility. At the age of six, he learned the Lays of Ancient Rome, and soon he was reciting Shakespeare and T.S.Eliot.
But his holidays might be spent in the jungles of Borneo. In the Scotsman’s obituary of his energetic and adventurous father, who only died this year at the age of 93, Rory recalled:
“When he was consul-general in Shanghai he taught the embassy staff and the KGB officer the Eightsome Reel. The KGB officer asked Dad, ‘Is this a dance for the aristocracy or the peasants?’ Dad replied without a blink, ‘In Scotland we don’t have such divisions.’”
Nor does the younger Stewart think of himself as belonging to either of those classes. He makes it a point of good manners to get on with almost anyone he meets. As David Ruffley, a colleague of his from 2010-15 on the Tory benches, says, “He has a capacity not to make enemies.”
But this should not be mistaken for wishy-washiness. In 2012 he was a resolute member of the Tory rebellion against a mainly elected House of Lords. “You don’t want to go there,” he was told by Osborne as he walked into the No lobby, but go there he did, in the certain knowledge that this would delay any offer of ministerial office.
Throughout his career, Stewart has shown a strong tendency to back his own judgment. Before going up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read history and philosophy, he spent a few months in the Black Watch, expecting to make a career as a soldier.
But instead he joined the Foreign Office. His first posting was to Indonesia, which was “the great success story of Asia”, until “suddenly the whole decadent, rapidly growing, prosperous society” suffered a catastrophic economic collapse, leading to riots, the murder of many of the Chinese and the downfall in 1998 of President Suharto.
As Stewart says, this was “a real lesson in the uncertainty of the world, because nobody I worked with had predicted any of this”.
He took a break from the Foreign Office to go on his long walk, which resulted in a book, The Places in Between, which established his reputation in the United States. After the invasion of Iraq 2003, he played a leading role as an administrator in trying to reconstruct two of the country’s southern provinces: a venture he believed would succeed.
But his compound, where he was responsible for 20 civilian staff, was shelled by a man with whom he had lunched only the previous week, and the Italian force which was supposed to come to his aid in 20 minutes took almost seven and a half hours to arrive.
Stewart changed his mind about Iraq: “We achieved very little. The invasion was a mistake and a failure.”
He observed with indignation the failure of George Bush and Tony Blair to change their minds when the invasion went wrong, and was disgusted by the way politics was practised in Britain. As he put it in 2007, in the article quoted at the start of this profile:
“why do people stand as politicians if they have no policies? Many politicians claim privately that they are simply concealing their policies until they are elected. It is more likely that when the winds of office change in their favour, they will find their faces frozen into an expression of affable inaction. The role of a modern politician is apparently to be likable, to tinker with existing institutions and to manage occasional crises.”
It wasn’t just in foreign policy that he saw decadence, vacillation and an intolerable passivity:
“Even though Britain is in a crisis, its other major policy issues seem to be approached with the same complacency. In many parts of the country, Asian Muslim and white communities live separate lives; people shun each other at school and in the streets and defend themselves in gangs.
“This very wealthy country has pockets of shameful poverty. I have encountered a level of random hostility, aggression and bitterness in Scottish public housing that I have never seen in an Afghan village.”
Stewart became so celebrated in the United States that in November 2010, not long after he had deserted his professorship at Harvard and been elected an MP, a long profile of him appeared in The New Yorker, examining whether he might one day enter 10 Downing Street. Stewart was prevailed on to expand on his conception of leadership, which he illustrated by reference to the work he had been doing with a charity, Turquoise Mountain, he set up in Kabul:
“In Kabul I work with a local government councilor called Aziz, who was a champion wrestler. For 40 years, he has dealt with war, pogroms and government. He is assessed by members of his community on whether he is generous to the poor, courageous even in the face of death, a powerful representative of their interests and able to keep his promises. He and they believe that leadership is an exercise in moral virtue and courage, that politics should be a noble profession and politicians virtuous. A British voter might think that is naïve. But I believe Aziz is right.”
In the same profile, Stewart allowed himself to be drawn on his own ambitions:
“If I was going to be really, really pretentious and put it in the most fantastical, idealistic terms, if you gave me a choice between being Edmund Burke or Lord North”—who was forced out of office during the American War of Independence—“I would much rather be Burke. My greatest ambition would be to be somebody who made some kind of intelligent, lasting contribution to political thought, much more than working my way up through the system at the cost of being a mediocre Prime Minister. There is just no point in being Lord North.”
He does, however, seem to think there is some point in being Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs. His admirers regard this as a staging post on the way to the Cabinet, and probably to the Foreign Secretaryship, as long as a Prime Minister can be found who will tolerate an occupant of that post who thinks for himself. But to have any hope of rising so high, Stewart will have to show he has abandoned the custom of his early life, which was to change course every few years.
There is something inscrutable about Stewart. People cannot quite make him out: a quality he may have inherited from his father, who as an intelligence officer had professional reasons for being inscrutable. Stewart is a curious mixture of the outsider and the insider. He understands the Establishment, and very often he finds it wanting. How long he can bear to be part of it, even he may not know.