Britain’s most waspish political voice QUENTIN LETTS on the cult of ‘Saint’ Rory Stewart: No wonder this Remoanerish, elitist peacock with a disdain for vulgar democracy is now the Left’s favourite ‘Tory’
Rory Stewart is the Norma Desmond of our politics. In the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, a character tells the one-time Hollywood diva: ‘You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.’ To which Norma drawls: ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’
Everyone loves Norma, so scented and actressy, so certain of her greatness. And everyone, we are told, loves Rory. So civilised. So centrist!
Stewart, 50, is the former Conservative Cabinet Minister who was almost the last person to defend Theresa May’s premiership and then tried to become Prime Minister before he lost his parliamentary career over Brexit.
In recent weeks, he has been filling theatres doing a double-act with his podcast colleague Alastair Campbell, and last week he published a volume of memoirs about his nine years at Westminster.
The book is vivid and funny, taking us behind the arras and describing the mad steeplechase of ministerial life.
Rory Stewart (pictured), 50, is the former Conservative Cabinet Minister who was almost the last person to defend Theresa May’s premiership and then tried to become Prime Minister before he lost his parliamentary career over Brexit
MPs treat each other with casual treachery. Senior civil servants, among them the appalling Simon (now Lord) McDonald of the Foreign Office and a comically snooty Sir Richard Heaton at the Justice Department, are beyond arrogant.
The person Rory really hates – hates, hates, hates – is his fellow Etonian Boris Johnson, who beat him to No 10.
And the person Rory loves? Himself.
All memoirs are self-absorbed but Politics On The Edge is so egomaniacal it should become a psychology textbook. The point of the book, Stewart writes, is to alert the nation to the deplorable condition of our body politic. ‘Our Government and Parliament is now in a shameful state.’
READ MORE: MPs have ‘tried to kill themselves’ and had ‘total breakdowns’ due to ‘almost unsustainable’ pressures of the job, says ex-Tory Cabinet minister Rory Stewart
His publisher adds: ‘We all sense there is something profoundly broken about our politics and Rory is the writer to show us why.’
The first part of that assertion is plain wrong. Some of us feel that Parliament, despite its barnacles, is stronger than it was before 2016. But Stewart is certainly the perfect case study.
His petulance and disdain for vulgar democracy – he writes of ‘the daily insolence of voters’ and he fought to dilute Brexit – are what brought Westminster to its knees before we finally left the EU. Stewart claims to have been propelled by Europeanism but he writes comparatively little about the Leave v. Remain debate.
Before the referendum, he seemed unfazed. What spurred his subsequent Remoanerishness may simply have been his nakedly personal rivalry with Johnson.
Stewart, son of an MI6 officer, toyed with becoming an ‘edgier sort of diplomat, a philosopher or a monk’ before taking a tilt at politics. The end purpose was ‘effecting fundamental change in our state and society’, though quite what that change was, he does not explain.
‘For God’s sake don’t become a Lib Dem,’ said Paddy Ashdown, the great Lib Dem swami. ‘Lib Dems get nothing done.’ Labour was possibly too sweatily meritocratic for refined Rory.
Stewart (pictured above while he was working for the Ministry of Justice in 2018), son of an MI6 officer, toyed with becoming an ‘edgier sort of diplomat, a philosopher or a monk’ before taking a tilt at politics
And so he wangled himself an interview with David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, and begged for a seat.
His pitch to Cameron was that ‘I cared. I didn’t want to be rich or famous. The only thing that had ever really motivated me since I was a small child was the idea of public service.’ Never wanted to be famous! Rory is impossible to dislike but, please, that claim is delusional.
The man is an elitist peacock, dropping names as freely as a potato lorry spilling spuds on a country corner.
Governors, prime ministers, ambassadors, even a king, are all ‘old friends’ and they lend him a halo of significance beyond his real achievements. He attends Bilderberg, which is like Davos but more exclusive and secretive.
And he is prone to stunts, be it melodramatically whipping off his necktie in a TV studio – the daftest moment yet in any TV election debate – or going on publicity-prone walks through Afghan deserts or through his Cumbrian constituency.
These are not, by themselves, bad things. As a parliamentary sketch writer, I love politicians who stand out from the dull crowd. But I don’t want them laying claim to some sainted modesty.
His role model was Michael Ignatieff, a media celebrity and ‘public intellectual’ (an unlovely phrase Stewart likes) who became a politician in Canada. ‘In politics, you earn your support one handshake at a time,’ said Ignatieff. Stewart was too impatient for that.
In his first conversations with Cameron, he demanded a ministerial future. No sooner had he been elected MP for Penrith and The Border than he started musing about becoming PM.
In his first conversations with Cameron, Stewart (pictured above) demanded a ministerial future. No sooner had he been elected MP for Penrith and The Border than he started musing about becoming PM
His book mocks MPs for being careerist and abandoning their principles but he himself was one of the nodding donkeys who always crouched in the gangway at Prime Minister’s Questions, the better to be seen on telly cheering hapless Mrs May.
Parliamentary politics is a team game imposed on solipsists. Most buckle down but Stewart thought he should be an exception.
Colleagues disliked his cockiness and one threatened to punch him after they disagreed over Iraq. Stewart claimed that an Iraq expert cited by the MP must be a nobody because Stewart had never heard of him.
READ MORE: Rory Stewart’s time as an MP left him disillusioned with politics – especially Cameron – not to mention the Tory who told him… ‘Speak to me like that again and I’ll punch you on the nose’
Stewart does not name the would-be nose-puncher but it was clearly North Wiltshire’s James Gray.
Last week, I asked Gray about the matter. The Middle East expert in question turns out to have been Gray’s brother, who was head of the Foreign Office’s Middle East department at the time of the Iraq war. Not such a nobody, after all.
Stewart is a gifted mimic and skilfully sends up the likes of Michael Gove (a slipperiness that is almost Gothic), Kwasi Kwarteng and Cameron’s zany ideas man Steve Hilton.
There is a good detail about him arriving at the Culture Department to find that his predecessor as Minister, a lank-fringed Lib Dem, had left behind his plastic comb. The story is a tragi-comic capsule of ministerial pointlessness.
We learn, too, of a cabal of senior civil servants called ‘the small group’ who meet in secrecy to agree government policy. Mandarins repeatedly are shown to regard elected Ministers as tumbleweeds.
One-to-one encounters contain long passages of direct quotation. Unless Stewart made secret recordings, these must be invented.
How accurate is the book?
As the James Gray incident shows, there are two sides to every story. Stewart brandishes the sword of truth – ‘the place of ethics in politics’, no less. That, along with his europhilia and loathing of Boris Johnson, is why he is now every BBC lefty’s favourite ‘Tory’.
He denounces Johnson as a sloppy liar and a danger to the nation. Fair enough. But anyone making such claims needs to think twice about forming a showbiz double-act with a notorious former New Labour boot-boy.
The book, incidentally, has quite a few factual errors, minor but surprising. It’s almost as if Stewart could not be bothered to get other MPs’ constituencies right. They’re just little people, eh?
David Cameron, who never trusted Stewart in politics, called him ‘a modern Julian Amery’. Stewart notes that Amery was ‘an exotic figure from another age, a friend of foreign potentates, on the wrong side of history over Suez’.
Ignatieff told Stewart that he was seen as ‘a self-publicising adventurer, too vain and too naïve’. Some will say it is to Stewart’s credit that he includes such comments in his book. Others may suspect he is doing so precisely so that he can turn around and say ‘see how self-aware I am’.
But is he?
He never grasps how much our national interest was weakened by Remain MPs trying to stop Brexit. Nor is there any recognition that his Boris complex may have been fuelled by their similarities: both eloquent, both a little chaotic, both madly ambitious, both Etonian, and both, regrettably, now out of Parliament.
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