You would not normally expect a Tory leadership campaign launch to take place at a comedy-festival venue in the trendy Southbank of London. Nor would you expect it to be situated in a small circus-tent, with spotlights beaming on an elevated stage in the centre. Nonetheless, Tory leadership contender Rory Stewart strolled out onto the stage of the ‘underbelly’ circus-tent this evening to launch his bid to be prime minister, looking like a slightly sinister ring-master.
Stewart’s message to the several hundred people who had gathered to see him could not have been clearer: I am not your usual Tory candidate, and I can reach the kind of people who would never normally vote for the Conservative party.
In his speech, Stewart chose to characterise the Tory leadership race as a clear choice for Conservative members: ‘A choice on the one hand of fairy story, and the other hand, of the energy of prudence, of seriousness, of realism’ of his campaign, that he said would make the United Kingdom a better place.
Continuing with the fairytale metaphor, Stewart said that the other candidates’ promises to renegotiate a new Brexit deal by 31 October, and their pledges to take Britain out without a deal, were a ‘failure to grasp reality’ and no different from the stories he read every night to his two young children.
He hit out at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, saying that the UK’s greatness was founded, ‘not on the word “no”, but on the word “yes”‘, and that he didn’t ‘believe in pretending that there is something called “no deal” that you are going to be able to drive through parliament.’
Stewart then moved on to his leadership rivals, who he implied were ‘false prophets’, leading the public down a ‘sweet magical path’, that would never match up to reality. He said their policies seemed to be dreamed up in ‘think tanks and focus groups’ rather than from their own convictions and from conversations with ordinary people.
Boris Johnson, the current frontrunner, was marked out for particular scrutiny. Stewart began the evening by saying he wan’t going to talk about the ‘prancing elephant in the room in this big circus-tent,’ before clarifying that he wasn’t speaking about the leading leadership contender. But he went on to hit out at the former Foreign Secretary, who he said was not the kind of person you wanted looking after your healthcare and education, never mind the codes to Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines.
On the domestic front, Stewart tried to portray himself as the most fiscally responsible of all the Tory leadership candidates, and criticised his rivals’ pledges to increase spending and cut taxes, especially when it came to doubling Britain’s defence spending:
‘I don’t believe in promising money that we don’t have. I don’t believe in the £84b worth of tax cuts that they other candidates have already offered in this race. I do not believe in pledging £42b to a single department.’
When talking about domestic policy, Stewart tried to suggest that his policy ideas would be informed by his own practical experience and conversations with others. He cited his visits to prisons like Wormwood Scrubs, and the day he learned about their systems, as well as visits he had made to agoraphobic constituents and victims of crime. At some points the examples descended into farce: Stewart claimed that his pledge to plant 100 million new trees in four months was because he himself had ‘planted 5,000 trees. Stuck my hands in the earth, teased out the roots, squeezed it into the soil, tubed it, protected it.’ He knew farmers could meet this pledge, ‘because I know how to plant a tree.’
Throughout the speech, Stewart clearly wished to portray himself as the epitome of conservatism. Asked whether he really belonged to the party of Thatcher, Iain Duncan Smith, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Stewart responded that:
‘I’m the only Conservative in this race when it comes to fiscal and economic prudence. I’m the only Conservative in this race who actually cares about not making tax cuts we can’t afford. I’m the type of Conservative, like Mrs Thatcher or Winston Churchill, who cared about detail.’
But on the biggest issue of the day, Brexit, it’s clear that Stewart’s views do not align with what most Conservative members think. When asked if he would back an opposition motion put forward by Corbyn that would seek to prevent no deal, Stewart said that he potentially could support it. And while he clarified later that he had now read the motion, and would not back it in the Commons, it’s hard to think of a Brexit position that could alienate more Tory members.
This is the larger problem with Stewart’s campaign to be prime minister. Like Brexit, his campaign seems to be out of step with actual Conservatives. His amateur hand-held videos and walks around Britain have charmed lots of people, and he has developed a cult-following, but at this stage of the race, there is no guarantee it is winning over the Conservative MPs and members he needs to become prime minister.
Stewart’s choice of venue for the launch this evening seems to perfectly capture the problem with his campaign. Yes, it took place in a venue that you’d never expect to see a Tory candidate launch their campaign. But this isn’t a general election, it’s a Westminster campaign. And on Thursday night, over in the House of Commons, the international development secretary will have to get more than 16 of his colleagues to give him their support. As things stand, Stewart will have to do a lot more if he wants to win them over.