Say’s Law has it that supply creates its own demand. The Parliamentary stage of the Conservative leadership election certainly saw sudden demand for Rory Stewart – from many voters, a lot of them non-Tory ones; from some Party members, among whom he has gained a small but dedicated following, and from a dedicated band of Conservative MPs on the left of the Party.
But perhaps the demand for something like Stewart is out there, anyway. He meets three needs.
First, for centrism on Brexit, and much else. The International Development Secretary cannot avoid the ultimate hard choice: he is opposed to No Deal. But his position elsewhere is ambiguous: he is against a second referendum, let alone revocation. However, he has refused to say how he would vote in a second Leave / Remain plebiscite. He is for Theresa May’s deal – enthusiastically so. It has been waiting for someone to make the case for it with vim and vigour, which the Prime Minister proved incapable of doing. With Labour confused and the Liberal Democrats a Remain party, Stewart has filled a gap in the market.
Second, for authenticity and anti-spin. The other leadership teams are like conventional armies. They have their slogans, their corporate tweets, their placard-holding bands of supporters, their journey videos that take them back to their childhood home or first workplace. They move laboriously. Stewart has been like a guerilla unit – at the start of the contest, anyway. His dashes around the country, breathless Twitter announcements, rushed-off videos with real voters, and passionate delivery made his rivals look staged, ponderous and slow-witted. Of all the candidates, Stewart is the most opposed to Boris Johnson, but also the most like him: he is a disruptor.
Finally, for a vanished age. It may more be one of myth than reality: a time when manners were gentler, Conservative MPs had heard the sound of gunfire, conversation was more courtly, politicians better-travelled…and party leaders posher. For all the class war rhetoric of modern British politics, there is a hunger out there, among a slice of voters, for leadership by the officer class. That Stewart has slashed ruthlessly at Johnson with his campaigning razor is beside the point, at least to this group of voters. The Iraq War service, tramps across perilous ‘Stans, lovely writing, secret service links: all feed the yearning of those who want a gentleman back in charge.
Essentially, Stewart is what we would call – if we may dare drag the heir to the throne on to this site – a Prince Charles Conservative: old-fashioned, rather smart, slightly eccentric, possessed of a feel for the Union, environmentally-focused, up for a spot of Duke of Edinburgh awards-type let’s-all-pull-together-now (Stewart is for compulsory national service) and a worshipper of the gods of small things, such as scrapping car parking charges. His views on agriculture lean towards protection. No wonder he enthused to Andrew Gimson about a Young England-type revival. He has voted for other parties in his time, but is essentially a Tory Romantic.
He is also, and primarily, a soloist. Unlike, say, Michael Gove, he has not built a team of supporting MPs and SpAds over many years. He does his own thing. Only in the later stages of his campaign has anything like a conventional operation begun to form around him. That own thing includes a lot of assertion and retraction: during the course of this election, for example, he has been against serving under Boris Johnson; then for; then against. Like other guerilla fighters, he’s adept at moving from one tactical raid to another, but has sometimes tripped over his own feet. So his pitch at making the Gove campaign fold in his favour seems only to have put other MPs’ backs up.
Here is the nub of the matter. Future articles and books will doubtless delve into how Stewart’s support came to drop by ten between the second and third Parliamentary ballots. The best snap explanation we can find is that some anti-Johnson Conservative MPs voted to put him in Tuesday evening’s BBC TV debate, hoping that he would take the former Foreign Secretary to pieces, and then stopped voting for him when he didn’t. Certainly, Stewart’s eccentricity came to the fore during the proceedings. He took his tie off; didn’t engage with the other contenders when not speaking; appeared to carry out stretching exercises; was frustrated by the format.
Much of politics is teamwork. There must therefore be a big question over whether Stewart is now the leader of the Tory Left, simply because there’s one over whether he can be the leader of anything. There is a vague but powerful sense of him somehow passing through – whether the location is Afghanistan or Chartwell or the Black Watch or the Conservative Parliamentary Party. We don’t mean that he is en route to the Liberal Democrats or another party. But, rather, that he may not be in politics for the long haul. Though he will be a charismatic, admirer-grabbing, unpredictable force for as long as he stays within it. (And, after all, he has been an MP for almost ten years.)
So what happens next?
Since Stewart is opposed to a No Deal Brexit, and Johnson claims to be ready for one if necessary, it would be for the best were the former not to serve in the latter’s government. Stewart is set to become a unmissable, unmarshallable voice from the backbenches. Defence, the Foreign Office, DEFRA – one can imagine him serving as Secretary of State in any of these departments as well as his present one in a different sort of Tory government.
It was a Stuart who was carried, in the song, “over the sea to Skye”. To his many new admirers, not all of them Conservatives, another Stewart is now the Tory King over the water.