When Rory Stewart first swept his way into the public consciousness – a lanky, slightly comic Heathcliff marching across our moors (and through our cities) – he was hailed as the potential saviour of a benighted country.
He was, his besotted fans claimed, “a breath of fresh air” and “a different kind of Tory”, by which they meant that, unlike Theresa May and Boris Johnson, he could handle himself in interviews and wasn’t scared of the general public.
For those of us in Scotland, this patter had a familiar ring to it. Where could we have heard it before? Ah, yes. It’s what much of the media had been saying about former Scottish leader Ruth Davidson ever since the indyref.
It wasn’t true about Ruth and it isn’t true about Rory. For all the kick-boxing lesbian shtick, Davidson hails from a typical aspirant working-class Tory background; and for all the swanning about Afghanistan wearing a turban, Stewart is still an old Etonian with a tip about himself.
Nor did their voting record set them apart. As we know, Davidson backed austerity and the rape clause and, though she always hated Johnson, she did little to actively oppose the Brexiteers until it was way too late. Stewart too voted with the government on everything that mattered from welfare reforms to immigration. Despite his Remainer status, not a squeak of meaningful dissent emanated from his Mick Jagger tribute act lips until he glimpsed a crack through which he might slip to power.
What both Davidson and Stewart answered was a peculiarly Tory appetite for “characters”. She, an army major type, happy to sit astride a buffalo; he, an opium-smoking intellectual prone to theatrically divesting himself of his tie mid-interview, they fulfilled the role of maverick.
In a party stripped of gravitas, how little it takes to impress. The irony is, of course, this love of eccentrics – this prioritising of style over substance – is what helped propel Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg on to the main stage. Given how that turned out, you’d think we might exercise a bit of caution now.
It is the fact that Davidson and Stewart do match the Tory template that makes their newfound outsider status so telling. Can it be that the party’s ideology is now so narrow those who were once a perfect fit no longer feel they have a home there?
Well, duh. The pushing out of moderates (and even not-so-moderates) has been a long, exhausting process, culminating in the expulsion of 21 MPs, some of whom have now defected to the Liberal Democrats in protest at Johnson’s “scorched earth” approach on Brexit.
One might argue that a Conservative Party that has no place for Kenneth Clarke, Nicholas Soames, Amber Rudd, Dominic Grieve and Stewart is no longer the Conservative Party in anything but name. And yet Johnson keeps banging on about One Nation Toryism as if the centrists that have watched him pander to the Ukip demographic – who have seen his ‘Brexit by 31 October or bust’ strategy falter – will fall for this flagrant attempt to win back the support of expelled party members and salvage some liberal credentials.
Of course, the same thing has been happening on the other side of the House. Jeremy Corbyn’s pig-headedness – his inability to compromise on his “principles”, while simultaneously flip-flopping over Brexit – pushed so many to the margins, eight of them left to form their own party. Others, like Luciana Berger, also joined the Lib Dems.
The two main leaders have transformed their parties into echo chambers; safe spaces where they are unlikely to be challenged by anyone with a contrary opinion. And yet Jo Swinson’s party – now a sort of temporary shelter for political refugees – cannot capitalise on its own centrism because there is no suitably unifying figure to head up a government of national unity.
Meanwhile, where is the superhero who, just months ago, was tipped to deliver us, and then the Scottish Tories, from disaster? In a move so left-field it is in the middle of the Irish Sea, he has just announced his independent candidature for Mayor of Goth… sorry, London.
Just days ago, the self-styled honest man of British politics insisted rumours he was up to something were unfounded. “To be completely clear my one hundred per cent focus is on ensuring that we avoid crashing out with a damaging unnecessary No-Deal Brexit on 31st Oct. The only thing I am launching next week is my four year old’s model boat,” he tweeted shortly before giving news of his next political adventure exclusively – and not at all cynically – to former chancellor George Osborne’s paper the Evening Standard.
And actually when you start to think of it, it’s not so left-field after all. Stewart is much more interesting and complicated than Johnson. He has done more things and he thinks more deeply. But they share an obsession with the classics and a romantic conceit of themselves as destined for greatness. In a New Yorker profile published back in 2010, he seemed to see himself as a the love-child of Lawrence of Arabia and Alexander the Great, whom he once described as “haunted… by the need to out-do everyone who had ever lived”.
The leadership bid – and the public acclaim it brought – must have played to that sense of destiny. But where to go with it once he’d failed? It seemed unlikely he’d be re-elected in his Pro-Leave constituency of Penrith and The Border. And the suggestion he might stand in Perth and North Perthshire with an eye on replacing Davidson as Scottish leader was cockamamie even before he lost the whip. So why not stand for mayor of London?
His lack of obvious emotional connection to the capital notwithstanding, Stewart might make a very good mayor. He has flair and ideas and the stamina to see things through. It’s a role that will give him the platform he desires. Matthew Parris may well be right when he says that – though ambitious and far from self-deprecating – Stewart is a man who is at his best when getting his teeth into a big project. Good luck to him, if so. London needs someone with vision and commitment to tackle the oligarchs and knife crime.
In the meantime, however, as the voice-over man in The Apprentice might say, the country’s search for a political saviour continues.