The Conservative leadership candidate is proving to be an intriguing proposition, writes Aidan Smith,
Sorry, Dad. Sorry for not doing better at school (and only ending up with this job).
Sorry for deciding I would support one of our city’s football teams when all the time your heart lay with the other (though you never let on and suffered in silence).
Sorry for nicking all your back issues of Amateur Photographer magazine with how-to hints, heavily illustrated, on snapping the naked female form.
And most of all, Dad, you’ll be birling in your grave about this: sorry for voting Tory.
Well, not yet. Nothing like yet. But Rory Stewart: I’m intrigued. We all are, aren’t we? I mean, he’s an Asia-yomping, baby-delivering, royal prince-tutoring, Old Etonian, MI6 opium-head. Frae Perth. What have we been saying for ages: that our politicians are dull, haven’t lived, haven’t wrestled pythons? Well, this one isn’t although I can find no evidence for the stuff about the snake, mainly because I made it up.
Stewart is hanging round public parks in a raincoat and tweeting: “Here for the next hour if you want to talk.” Somehow this isn’t coming across as creepy, which must be down to those crafty skills he learned in the secret service. Admittedly one of these parks was the lush loveliness of Kew Gardens and not some blasted heath with tied-up swings and chutes strewn with syringes and used condoms but he’s getting out there and chatting to people about Brexit. And love; Stewart loves love.
Here’s another neat trick he’s pulled off: as an Old Etonian he’s not being metaphorically beaten up about his posh school, or metaphorically having his head shoved down the figurative first-year toilet. This must be because there’s so much else about him that we can discuss. Like how he progressed to the Bullingdon Club, attended one meeting but decided: “This seems like the sort of organisation where, you know, I might be invited to stick my willy in a dead pig’s mouth or something. As Groucho Marx nearly said: ‘Any club that wishes me to do that to my member … ’”
The last Bullingdon/Etonian prime minister we had was David Cameron. Before any of us properly knew him, and long before he got us into the current mess, I sought a snap-poll verdict from Martin Amis. “Cameron looks epicene,” the great writer said. “And slightly bloated on inherited wealth.”
Now, we shouldn’t really judge politicians on their appearance - this is the Conservative leadership race, after all, and not Love Island - but until we learn more about Stewart and his vision we see a face that is youthful but also ancient. It’s characterful. Possibly he’ll be as walnuty as WH Auden when he’s older. It’s a face which could have been drawn by a comic-strip artist, though maybe it’s more Bash Street Kids than Lord Snooty and his Chums, which makes a pleasant change, even though the family home is a 250-year-old mansion near Crieff. There’s a whiff of Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman about him, which gets my vote.
But would Stewart actually get my vote? Inherited politics should have me voting Labour, which I’ve done in the past, though my father died before Tony Blair’s New Labour makeover and he probably wouldn’t recognise, or especially like, the party as they are now. All I can say for sure is that I’m strangely endeared to Stewart because of his nerdiness and his goofiness. Because of the spoof tweets about him being in your fridge for the next hour or sliding out from under your bed, imploring: “Debate me”. Because of his calmness, his conciliatory tone and the New York Times the other day likening him to Lawrence of Arabia for that 6,000-mile trek, solo for two years, across Afghanistan and many other lands. (What does Michael Gove think of that effort as the leadership rival applies the nipple-rash cream for his quick jog round the badlands of Kensington? What does Esther McVey, she of the immaculate hair which never moves, think? What about Dominic Raab in his too-short boxer’s briefs, not ideal for manspreading while attempting to mansplain your views on feminism?).
Of course, all of this is no guarantee Stewart will be any good as Prime Minister. It may be that, as we’ve been left demented and despairful by Brexit, he’s been the urgently-required comedy interlude. It’s possible that he’s just another great British eccentric who, when asked in the Commons about the decline of the hedgehog, began: “Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum … ”
Or to put it another way: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” This hedgehog knows that honesty is the best policy so, asked if he’d ever tried drugs, ’fessed up on that Asian odyssey to having smoked opium from a pipe passed to him at a village wedding.
Bang went Stewart’s social care policy. He’d hoped the latter would get the coverage that day but of course it was the opium, for which he apologised, so let this piece about his colourful life and times show that he’d take no-deal off the table, and this makes him unique among the contenders.
Maybe as you check your fridge for Stewart, his closet rattles with more skeletons. “There are things I’ve done in my life that I’m ashamed of,” he admitted. Still, he probably won’t pretend, like Cameron, to support Aston Villa or possibly West Ham United. Or pretend, like Gordon Brown, that he grooves to the Arctic Monkeys.
This hedgehog may end up being squashed by a juggernaut - a BorisBus, most likely. But he’s already produced the soundbite of this campaign: “The key word that we need to get back to,” he told Question Time last week, “a word that is so powerful and nobody ever uses it in politics, is the word ‘love’.”