Ever since Tony Blair appeared on the scene I have found it hard to avoid watching an up-and-coming politician without trying to imagine a clerical collar around their neck. If the image sticks, I would say that person has a potential image problem in the making. Last week Rory Stewart won plaudits for his speech in his circus tent on the South Bank, which was widely seen as being a class apart from the leadership launches of his colleagues, demonstrating the ability to appeal across the political spectrum. To some, in Channel 4’s debate on Sunday, Stewart still towered over his peers – and he certainly had the distinction of being the only one of the five candidates to succeed in drawing applause from the audience for his closing statement.
But sorry, as of the point in Sunday evening’s debate when he answered the question on what was his greatest fault, he will always be in my mind the Reverend Rory Stewart. Humility and self-deprecation can be charming traits, but overdo it and it starts to grate – becoming like the bit in the Anglican communion where worshippers are expected to chant that they are not fit to gather the crumbs from beneath the Good Lord’s table. Poor Rory said he didn’t know where to start when it came to his weaknesses. He said his campaign had taught him a big lesson about his ‘ignorance’ and ‘frailty’. ‘We’ve got to take politics away from “me”’, he said and make it about ‘we’.
Well, there’s the thing. Rory, of course, is not in this contest for himself – not the man who was elevated to the Cabinet one day and literally the next day announced that he would like to be Prime Minister. He is in it for the greater benefit of humankind. But how convenient that he knows all the right buttons to press to try to convince people he is not really a politician at all – he is an “outsider” (as much as you can be an outsider after an education at Eton and Balliol).
Rory does speak well. He has good timing and a directness which allows him to hold an audience, but what has become very clear from last week’s tent speech and from Sunday’s debate is that his speeches also have a very high guff content. Of all the candidates, he was the one least able, or least prepared, to nail down policies in which he believes. It was all generalities, deliberately selected to give the professional offence-takers on Twitter the least reason to object to him.
For Woke Britain, Stewart has now firmly established himself as the least-nasty member of the nasty party. That could help him pick up votes from Labour and Lib Dems in a general election, but it can’t help fill the enormous void at the heart of his pitch for the leadership. He is offering nothing other than the faulty deal which Theresa May negotiated with the EU last November and which has already been comprehensively defeated in the Commons three times – once by a record margin. It was defeated for very good reason: it would allow (in fact let’s be honest and say it was deliberately designed to do this) Britain to be trapped in the backstop indefinitely while we are forced to accept rules on trade and product standards but have no say in the making of those rules. There is no point whatsoever in bringing back this deal before the Commons. It will be defeated again and again – and rightly so. As for his offer to reach out to Nigel Farage, what is the thinking behind that? If you want to practise big tent politics you have to offer at least something to everyone you want to entice into it. Rory has absolutely nothing to offer Nigel Farage – who would far rather stay outside and pull out the guy ropes.
Rory says he doesn’t know where to start when listing his weaknesses, but I suggest that he puts at the top a failure of imagination and limited reasoning powers to think through a problem. He is all presentation and little substance – which makes him even more an archetypal politician than the opponents from which he is trying to distinguish himself.