Could Rory Stewart become Mayor of London, disrupt the main political parties and strike a historic blow for humane centrism and political compromise? Possibly the best reason to bet against him is that quite a lot of people like me will be arguing – and hoping – that he can win.
By “people like me” I mean the commentator-class. I know what I am. I run a think-tank at Westminster and I write about politics for newspapers and magazines. I don’t belong to any political party and have voted for at least five of them in my 43 and three-quarter years. I don’t really understand tribal partisanship and I admire politicians who say things and advocate policies that are not immediately popular, and those who are willing to work with – or at least engage with – people who don’t agree with them.
In short, Rory Stewart’s bid to take London could have been tailor-made for me and a fair few others who do this sort of thing for a living. I’m saying nice things about him in this column and I don’t imagine I’ll be alone in that. People like me like politicians like Rory Stewart.
Which is why people like me should pause and ask if we could be wrong. After all, we’ve been wrong about an awful lot in the last few years. If the selection of Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and yes, the decision to leave the EU have proved anything, it’s that socially liberal internationalist people at Westminster who dismiss “ideology” as a bad thing do not, amazingly, have a monopoly on political wisdom.
So I should set out all the reasons why Stewart will struggle to win in London. First is the boring question of organisation. He doesn’t have one. Yes, he’s got almost nine months, and he won’t be short of cash, but building the street-level canvassing and campaigning machine that does still matter in the Facebook age is very, very hard. A lot will depend on how Rory For London does at persuading active members of other parties to join up and form the basis of a campaign infrastructure
Second is the opposition. Sadiq Khan is a good politician and an agile campaigner. Stewart’s best line of political attack on the incumbent is to frame him as part of the Westminster establishment, part of the old order.
The problem with that is that Khan has done a good job of distancing himself from Westminster and his party’s national brand. Who now remembers that Khan was one of the MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership? Many Londoners know him as mayor first, Labour second.
History is the third problem for Stewart. Yes, today he’s an iconoclastic rebel but he used to be a fairly loyal Tory minister
Expect to hear a lot about his voting record on welfare and questions about how compassionate and committed to the poor he really is. This matters more than you might think. For all London’s wealth, poverty and welfare are real issues in the capital. (His poshness isn’t a problem in London, incidentally.)
The fourth thing that could count against Stewart is the same thing that makes him a viable and attractive candidate. He’s a bit odd. Much of his oddness is good, and politically useful: he is evidently willing and able to do things differently.
But eccentricity can go from being charming to just weird very quickly. That moment in the Tory leadership debate when he removed his tie then offered a mildly bizarre account of his actions shows the flipside of his charisma.
And yet. For all the good reasons to bet against him, I think Rory Stewart should be taken seriously, and for one simple reason: star power. He’s got it. People often like him, and even if they don’t like him (a few of his parliamentary colleagues are in this group), they notice him and they talk about him. Stewart can cut through to the point where he gets a hearing from voters, though that obviously doesn’t guarantee they’ll back him.
This stuff is hard to define and impossible to fake: a politician either has it or not. Clinton has in droves, and Blair too. Farage has it. Boris Johnson certainly used to have it, and even if he’s narrowed the spectrum of his appeal, he’s still impossible to ignore.
And Johnson is of course the best reason to think Stewart could win in London. A charming liberal Tory oddball who breaks the normal rules of politics and reaches people who don’t like Tories and don’t like politicians, Rory Stewart could well break the mould and prove he really is what Boris Johnson used to be.