You are gifted, charismatic and highly articulate; moderate and quirky; not a team player, restless, and untested in high office for any lengthy period. You have voted Labour, served as a Conservative Cabinet Minister and are not a Liberal Democrat. You are pro-Brexit, opposed to a second referendum and anti-No Deal. To a floating voter, you are manna to heaven. To your colleagues, you sometimes leave a sour taste in the mouth. Since you are first and foremost a soloist, the Parliamentary system doesn’t suit you. But you have developed a taste for politics. What do you do?
You turn your problem on its head, and transform it into an asset. That’s to say, you exploit local power and anti-politics, and run as an Independent – to have charge of “the greatest city on earth”. You aim to become the most powerful man in local government.
Such is Rory Stewart’s cunning plan to get round the rearing wall before him: one constructed by the exigencies of Brexit, the solitariness of his character, the choices that he himself has made – and his recognition that nothing awaits him under Boris Johnson’s Conservative leadership other than the wilderness. It has been clear for some time that, brilliant as he is, he has nowhere to go at Westminster. He could perhaps have stood in his Penrith and the Border constituency as an independent, and maybe won. But what then? The Tory Party as presently constituted might eventually have him back, but it would surely not make him its leader.
Stewart toyed with the idea of setting up a British En Marche, but will have recognised that first past the post is cruel to new parties. The Independent Group for Change is a warning deaths-head. He might have waited to see if Johnson’s Government collapses, and the present Commons throws up a national government to replace it. He would have been shoo-in for a Cabinet post in it somewhere. But though Stewart has many virtues, patience isn’t one of them. And although he has been in the Commons for the best part of ten years – a goodish stint these days – there has always been about him a faint sense that he was passing through.
After all, he has passed through being a royal tutor; helping to govern an Iraqi province; a mass of countries with “stan” at their end (he is a fabulous travel writer)…and now the Conservative Party.
Many in Parliament will view his proposed translation from a Tory MP representing a rural seat on the borders of Scotland to Mayor of a vast city embedded deep in the South East as ridiculous. True, Stewart risks being written off as an eccentric. But he is a mesmeric campaigner and has a gift for relating to the public.
How he will get round his self-proclaimed Toryism in what is basically a Labour city is anyone’s guess. Although at first glance his candidacy is a further problem for Sean Bailey, this site suspects that it is also a new complication for Sadiq Khan.
Some will claim that his departure says something about today’s Conservative Party. We disagree. While believing that his departure is certainly a loss, and a sad one, this decision is not fundamentally about the party at all. It is all about him.