Rory Stewart’s career to date reads like something from the heyday of the empire.
Rory Stewart’s career to date reads like something from the heyday of the empire. Eton and Oxford- educated, he has been a tutor to royalty, an officer in the Black Watch, the deputy governor of an Iraqi province, has founded a charity in Afghanistan and has written two critically acclaimed books as well as walking across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal. Now he wants to be a Tory MP.
With Brad Pitt having already bought the movie rights to Stewart’s life story, one would have thought that the Tories would be revelling in their new catch. Style and substance combined: what the modern Tory party so desperately wants. But instead Stewart’s ambitions, announced in an interview in the London Evening Standard that took the party hierarchy by surprise, are causing heartburn.
Stewart believes, and has been all over the media saying, that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and that the British presence there should be substantially reduced; something that is not Tory party policy. To one senior figure in the party’s foreign policy-making process his views are ‘complete folly’ and ‘suicidal’.
David Cameron’s circle worry a lot about maintaining both party and popular support for the effort in Afghanistan — there is considerable concern that David Davis might rock the boat this autumn with a public call for withdrawal — so the prospect of a media-savvy Afghan expert on the Tory backbenches who disagrees with their approach causes alarm. In Stewart, senior aides believe, the Tories could be saddling themselves with another Zac Goldsmith — an evangelist whose views are too strong to abide party discipline.
Stewart’s friends argue that, having served in the military and the diplomatic service, he knows when to bite his tongue. Also, having briefed both William Hague and Cameron’s influential chief of staff Ed Llewellyn, he is well aware of where the party is on the issue. But it would seem odd for Stewart to give up a prestigious job at Harvard only to become an MP who stayed silent on his area of expertise. A former colleague doubts that he is capable of keeping quiet for long, calling him ‘a deliberate contrarian and self-promoter’.
The entry of Stewart into Tory politics threatens to highlight the two big hidden splits in Cameron’s party. On foreign policy, there is a significant tension between the party’s neoconservative wing and the more realist faction. In opposition, this has been kept under wraps — the hawkish George Osborne said wryly on Tuesday that he and his fellow hawk Michael Gove ‘stay silent on foreign policy issues’ — but in government it may well burst open. The other is on how to integrate the Muslim community within Britain. Stewart has indicated that he wants to be the MP for High Wycombe, the Tory seat with the largest Muslim population. But there are worries that he represents the ‘empire comes home’ approach to dealing with Muslim communities, which emphasises squaring religious leaders rather than integration.
If Stewart manages to make it on to the shortlist in a few constituencies, he’ll get selected: his life story is too compelling and his manner too winning for him not to. If elected, Stewart — who is not short of ambition: he recently asked a journalist, ‘Do you think I should be prime minister?’ — could soon learn that the whips believe in the utility of force as much as any of the policy-makers he is more used to dealing with.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 15, 2009