Rory Stewart’s announcement that he would run as an independent candidate for Mayor for London was typically civilised. This was no political suicide bomb. Instead Stewart waited for his erstwhile party’s conference to finish before making his move. But this trademark decency does not render his decision any less barking to his detractors.
I’m on friendly terms with Stewart and had enthusiastically supported his Conservative leadership campaign which, after this abrupt defection, does leave me feeling like a bit of an arse if I’m honest.
But Rory is very hard to dislike, not least because his innate decency, ability and desire to listen and respond to ordinary people is clearly authentic. Yet ability and stickability are both important if you want to leave your mark in this world. Stewart’s critics point to his gadfly tendency – he has been a soldier, a diplomat, a university lecturer, held several ministerial positions and, of course, a Tory MP – as evidence that, far from animated by public duty, he’s running for Mayor because the addictive attention of the TV studios has waned. Frankly, perhaps, he’s just a bit bored of life on the Fells.
I think this misrepresents him. On the much vaunted #rorywalks outings that distinguished Stewart from every other Conservative leadership candidate, he deliberately (OK, let’s forget Kew Gardens) put himself in places where ordinary people had access to him and could challenge him in debate.
I’ve never forgotten – I’m sure he hasn’t either – an encounter with a young couple in Poplar in London’s East End. They told him that they were putting off starting a family because it was too dangerous to bring up children where they lived. Perhaps it was arresting moments like those, stark in their outrageous simplicity, that ignited his desire to get into power in London to help rescue people like them, marooned in violence while their present Mayor plays chicken with the leader of the free world or splurges yet more money on the diversity industry.
He will need a plan, though, that extends well beyond the initial selfie salvos in front of St Paul’s. It’s fine to talk about taking the dead hand of national politics out of London’s governance. But for all his faults, Sadiq Khan – a wily politician – has already carved out a niche distinctly insulated from Corbyn’s toxic influence.
Politics might be broken, but so too is the capital city. Londoners need clean air, social inclusion, affordable public housing, safer streets, skills to match a post-Brexit economy and a transport infrastructure that delivers still sentient beings to work on time. Stewart’s experience and rapid achievements in government departments that encompass the environment, development, criminal justice and voluntary sectors can make a difference in a multi-ethnic capital city that is struggling and where Brexit will have a profound impact. But the boring details matter.
My loyalties are conflicted. There’s no reason an eccentric and engaging independent backed by a shrewd campaign can’t win big in the Big Smoke.
Londoners are contrary buggers. They seem to like optimistic disrupters especially if they are Old Etonians. The Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey while likeable and energetic and with a commendable backstory of triumph over adversity has yet to register on public consciousness.
I’ll continue to cheer for my home team, of course, but with half an eye on Rory Stewart’s progress. He is still a good man in a tight spot. A message of hope laced with practical policies that speak for – and to – ordinary people transcending the political trenches he’s just stepped out of might just put him in City Hall.