Rory Stewart is one of that almost extinct species in the modern Conservative party, a one-nation Tory. He is also – or was (until Boris Johnson kicked him out) – a politician with hinterland. He had been places and done things before getting himself elected in his late thirties, entering parliament in 2010. Disillusion rapidly set in:
Too much of our time was absorbed in gossip about the promotion of one colleague or the scandal engulfing another. Even four weeks in, I sensed more impotence, suspicion, envy, resentment, claustrophobia and schadenfreude than I had seen in any other profession.
It is made clear to him from the outset that rebellion was fatal to ambition. Early on, David Cameron comes up with a daft plan to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an entirely elected second chamber. Stewart was proposing to vote against. Minutes before the vote he is intercepted by George Osborne:
‘Rory, I am going to promote you to be a minister in ten days, but if you walk through that door,’ he said, indicating the ‘no’ lobby, ‘you will, I promise, not be promoted in the rest of this parliament. You will be a backbencher for at least five years.’
Stewart duly walks through that door. Osborne is as good as his word.
Not until Theresa May becomes Tory leader does the author find himself in government. Over the next four years he holds no fewer than five portfolios in four departments, with responsibilities as diverse as flood control, prisons, overseas development and as Africa minister in the Foreign Office. It is part of the madness of government that he is rarely left anywhere for longer than a year. When he finally reaches the cabinet, as secretary of state for international development, he lasts just three months.
He enters each department fizzing with energy and ideas, only to find a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of most officials, many of whom seem to see him as an inconvenient irritant.