Rory Stewart’s pitch for prime minister seems strangely distant now, lost in the enveloping chaos of Boris Johnston’s shamble to glory. All is not lost, however. The divergent metrics of parliamentary and public sentiment – and the character deficits of the frontrunner, who claims to be able to square that circle – make it abundantly possible that Stewart will have another chance to shine before the year is out. So what should he be doing in the meantime?
I was peripherally involved in Stewart's leadership campaign, helping to organise some of his Northern Ireland visit, including a trip to my home county (and Britain's true Lake District) Fermanagh.
Here Stewart shone as the man who invented ‘slow politics’ – an interest in the lives of people for whom Westminster’s carnival of narcissism is a frenetic, peripheral and alienating experience. I put him together with farmers worried about the consequences, from tariffs to animal welfare, of a no-deal Brexit. He listened with humility and spoke with knowledge and empathy. Feedback from my normally unimpressible contacts was positive. I suspect the value of spending time understanding the lives and aspirations of ordinary people snared in our national psychodrama, while still needing to put bread on the table, will become more not less central to his pitch.
I was put in mind of the value of this calm, measured engagement again last night when I attended the Police Foundation’s Harris Memorial Lecture, delivered by Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick. In a clever discourse on the state of British policing, she identified four main challenges all too familiar to those who want to fix British politics right now: velocity, variety, volume and complexity.
We’ve touched on velocity already. Rory Stewart, in his street encounters with a punch-drunk electorate, has identified a yearning for steadiness, stability, prudence and common sense from the ruling class.
If there was ever any latent admiration for ‘just in time’, shirt untucked, back of an envelope government, it has surely drained away by now. People across the political spectrum have been struck by Stewart’s seriousness of purpose and his refusal to submit to the superficial.
The speed of change across society in all its forms is the enemy of reason. It’s not going to get better any time soon, as people trapped in tech-vulnerable, contingent and soon-to-be obsolete jobs are going to discover. We need leadership in party and country that is agile enough to detect and react. Rory Stewart’s diverse experience in leadership roles gives him a valuable perspective on it.
The variety and volume of woes this country faces must also continue to animate Stewart’s journey. The skill of divining what is important to people who could – or should – be voting Conservative, matters far more than tossing some red meat to the faithful.
He has demonstrated this particularly well in relation to social care – one of the key worries of the sandwich generation (those in their 30s or 40s), balancing the competing needs of parenting and elderly parents.
Stewart also needs to take a similar sharp focus on crime and community safety, particularly in areas of high deprivation where people marooned by violence and a crippling lack of social mobility feel abandoned by authority. Without the decisive restoration of order in such areas, hopeful initiatives will founder. Extreme ideologies will prosper. Desperate families, like some of those he met in east London will go under. Humility will go a long way here. The public services built to respond to people in need have been degraded too far. Small government, yes, but let’s fund the essential core services to be world class at protecting and enabling the vulnerable.
Allied to this is the need for a conversation with the electorate about duty and responsibility, the unseen flip-side of our obsession with ‘rights’. Rights have no agency without those positive obligations we owe to each other. This dependency explains part of our national malaise – we have never had so many formal rights and paradoxically have never felt so disempowered. A discussion with the electorate about how to repurpose ‘respect’ – in schools, communities, between generations, towards difference – and its central importance to how we live freely would not be wasted time. Our values in a post-Brexit world won’t be abstract, they will help define how we come together again. Freedom isn’t free.
Rory Stewart is fond of a flip chart. He has taken to using visual diagrams to make sense of the multiple outcomes of Brexit. Like the Met Police, politics and our national life is beset with complexity, often but not always a fact of life in the digital age.
But complexity is also the last refuge of the scoundrel, used by elites to baffle the governed, as a cover story for institutional incompetence and by the private sector to game markets, create anticompetitive monopolies and rip off the consumer. Stewart himself observed this chicanery when at the helm of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, a once great organisation I was proud to serve in, laid low by managerialism and process obsession.
His instinct here is ahead of the curve and he should not surrender it. Stewart’s idea of a people’s jury to break the Brexit impasse was widely derided at the time for many reasons, including that a solution would be beyond the ken of voters if it had eluded the Westminster elite.
This arrogance is corrosive to public life and also just daft. We’re in a bad place and we can’t leave all the heavy lifting to a stalled representative democracy. If twelve ordinary men and women in a jury can decide the fate of people accused of serious crime, they can surely assist with a practical solution for our leaving the EU.
And why stop there? On crime, social justice, environment, enterprise, community cohesion, migration, transport let’s hear directly from juries of citizens across our four nations who live the consequences of Westminster decisions on fixes for the most intractable issues. Let’s then build the best of these ideas into a radical centre manifesto for the Conservative party.
Above all else, Rory Stewart needs to use his wilderness months to develop ideas and project values that will make Conservatism trustworthy again. The entryism of pragmatic, hopeful politics rooted in communities – and bigger than Brexit – is much more important than bums on seats at party conference.
We need big-tent inclusive Unionism – a decent, modern patriotism to counter the inevitable stress on the UK's fabric that Brexit will bring. My hunch is that the electorate will test these propositions sooner rather than later as the wheels fall off the Boris bus.
Rory Stewart’s service to his party and his country is to design and operate an attractive alternative to the constitutional self-harmers in his back yard and the disaster socialists waiting just over the horizon. It’s a tall order but Rory #walkson.