The stern, unbending head of Gladstone gazed at the Tory MPs making their way in and out of Committee Room 14, also known as the Gladstone Room, where the second round of voting in the Conservative leadership election was taking place.
He, or to be strictly accurate a terracotta bust of him, was unamused by the frivolity exhibited by so many of his successors. They treated the sacred trust reposed in them as if they were attending a race meeting, where the point was to have a good time with one’s boon companions, to crack as many jokes as one could, and if possible to back the winner.
Here came the favourite, Boris Johnson, hands in pockets, leaning forward, communicating confidence as he strode away down the Committee Corridor after casting his vote.
“See you there,” Johnson says. He is a master of the boldly meaningless but vaguely convivial phrase. He looks forward to seeing us “there”, wherever “there” may be. Perhaps he has in mind the exclusive, gated community in Downing Street where the winner of the race will be accommodated.
Jeremy Hunt emerged from Committee Room 14. “Some gossip for you,” he said to the waiting press. “I’m the 242nd person to vote.”
This sounded better than it reads. It was amusingly unfunny.
And here was the prime minister, in a lime green coat and a cream dress, moving so fast in her little entourage that there was no hope of engaging her in conversation.
Her face was set in a horrible smile. The careers of British Prime Ministers die in public.
One of Johnson’s most ebullient supporters told ConHome: “I totally underestimated the Stewart bandwagon! I think he’s going to go through!”
Members of the campaign teams for the different candidates sat on the benches either side of the entrance to Committee Room 14, making a note of the MPs who had voted.
Gillian Keegan, the MP for Chichester, who had given the speech introducing Rory Stewart at his campaign launch, looked extremely cheerful. When this was remarked upon, she said she always looks extremely cheerful.
Here was Shoshana Clark, Stewart’s wife, first met on Saturday afternoon in Poplar, communicating a kind of calm assurance as she strolled up and down the corridor.
And here was Stewart himself, the insurgent leader, feeling his small guerrilla force growing to a point where it could annoy or even confound conventional armies.
“Mr Gove, how are you feeling?” someone said as he arrived, rather red in the face, to vote.
“Very well, thank you,” he said with his customary rapidity and politeness.
Dominic Raab somehow got in and out of the Gladstone Room without our spotting him. He was not raising his profile.
The racegoers were determined that Stewart should go through to the next round. It was the sporting instinct: the insistence on creating an exciting contest, and the knowledge that only Stewart had the mettle to provide it.
He proceeded to gain 18 votes, more even than Johnson, who had 14 more. The race is on. Gladstone, we firmly believe, approves, for if anyone can speak a language of Gladstonian moral seriousness, it is Stewart, the man now ready to confront Johnson, himself the closest our age comes to a Disraeli.