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.