It’s a warm, sunny Friday afternoon in south London, the air clear after a morning of torrential rain showers. In Battersea Park by the Thames, the river is sparkling. It’s end-of-week weather that fills pub gardens or inspires an impromptu walk home. But gathered in the shadow of the London Peace Pagoda, a knot of around 40 people are holding up the start of their weekend, trying to answer a gnawing question: is Rory Stewart for real?
The International Development Secretary certainly doesn’t exist within the bounds of a Tory leadership contest in 2019. The oriental shrine by the banks of the Thames offers a good metaphor for the surprise package in the Tory leadership race: exotic, angular, unexpected – and when you get up close, they both have a strangely calming effect.
Stewart has casually broken most of the rules: becoming the first to declare his candidacy, within days of being appointed to the cabinet for the first time, while all his rivals were still being evasive; fighting for the votes of Tory MPs by hitting the streets and social media to interact with the public; pretending to film selfie footage by sticking his arm out as if he was holding the camera – then admitting it, when asked.
Where other candidates have coded their criticism of the frontrunner, Boris Johnson, Stewart has spelled it out: “Is this the person that you want writing the instructions to the nuclear submarines?”
More than 500 people came to his campaign launch in a circus tent, where he spoke lyrically about the need for humility and an “energy of shame” in British politics, and described his Scottish father – a former number two in MI6 – organising sword dances in Shanghai and wearing tartan trews in the Vietnamese jungle. He has promised as prime minister to visit every county in the UK, “walking and listening, walking and listening”.
More significantly in a race dominated by Brexit, Stewart has offered only painful honesty about leaving the EU, not just to a Tory Party deep in denial, but to both sides of the debate. He has rejected No Deal, going as far as threatening to “bring down” Boris Johnson and set up a rival parliament if he suspends Westminster – but Stewart has also disappointed Remainers by telling them the UK must leave.
Perhaps because everyone expects Johnson to win without trying, everyone else in the contest feels like a no-hoper; so you might as well be the most interesting no-hoper, and do it on your own terms.
And so while four candidates are out, Stewart is still here, and could still fight on into another round. His odds at the bookmakers have shrunk from 100-1 to 16-1, while a survey by the influential Conservative Home website on the morning of the first MPs’ ballot named him the Tory membership’s preferred challenger to Johnson.
On the strength of a couple of tweets announcing a time and a location, around four dozen people have gathered in Battersea Park, answering Stewart’s call to question and challenge him. There are a mix of ages; it’s an affluent group clad in Barbour jumpers and Ray-Ban sunglasses. Some are Tories, but most are not – a reflection of his appeal for compromise across boundaries, but also a warning, given the aim of leading his party. At the first mention of Johnson, there’s a pantomime chorus of “No!”
An interesting aspect of Stewart’s campaign has been the consistent presence of his wife, Shoshana, who runs the Turquoise Mountain development charity that Stewart helped set up in Afghanistan for Prince Charles. Like many of the partners and spouses of the leadership contenders, she was at Stewart’s campaign launch; unlike the others, she was also sat among the press pack at the declaration of the first leadership ballot in Committee Room 14 at Westminster. And here she is again, warming up the crowd in Battersea Park by asking what questions and issues they want to raise when he arrives – and noting them all down.
Akshay, 22, is representative of the kind of voters the Tories badly need: he says he would have voted Tory in 2015 if he was old enough, but picked the Lib Dems in 2017 because of Brexit. He tells Shoshana he wants Stewart to explain “why I should vote Conservative when they’re cutting my generation off from our continent”.
Why is he intrigued by Stewart? “There’s something about the tone of compromise that sounds as if it might shift things”, Akshay tells me. “I’ve got one of those families where there’s a big age split, and my parents are very Brexity. Maybe he can bridge that.”
Stewart arrives and spends a couple of minutes shaking hands greeting people, including working out whether he served with a man’s brother in Iraq or Afghanistan. When he begins speaking, he’s in the middle of the crowd rather than on the steps of the pagoda, “because I’m worried it’s a little inappropriate” – it holds several sacred statues of Buddha.
He asks where the group have come from – many live around South London, but one man has come from Norwich, and another is from Iceland and hoped to meet Stewart after reading his books about governing part of Iraq.
There’s a Brigadoon-esque quality to Stewart’s rhetoric and the way he talks about identity. His doesn’t start with politics but a potted history of the pagoda – “a wonderful symbol of so many things we see in Britain” – and the surroundings.
“Here we stand right on the edge of an iron age settlement, where famously out of the Thames was dredged in the 19th century shields and helmets of the Celtic people,” he says, pausing to apologise to a yapping dog. “Coming out of that great energy of the Thames was everything else in our history – Queen Elizabeth and Leicester, beating oars, came up and down this river; the journeys of Thomas More, very close to us, coming down from his house in Chelsea. All of this is embedded in a spot where we have this extraordinary gift from Japan. I hope – I hope, I hope, I hope – we can begin to bring a little bit of that soil and little bit of our feeling into politics.” PMQs feels a long way away.
Dog walkers and parents with young children join the crowd as Stewart starts taking questions. “How many of you are walkers?” he asks. “It’s literally about putting your feet on the ground.” He wants to get “the sense of the particular” from his audience – the issues affecting “real people and real places”.
“My experiment today – which might not work, because most of my experiments don’t work – is to see if we can get a conversation going about particulars rather than abstracts,” he says, asking what they would want to see in 15 years time if they became prime minister.
He hears about everything from knife crime in the neighbouring estate, to automation and universal basic income, to the plight of refugees in Syria, and is told by the mother of an NHS doctor that her son-in-law, a surgeon, is “wrung out” after weekends on call covering five local hospitals. He even hears from a couple of Scots, curious about how he would approach working with Nicola Sturgeon.
“The Conservatives haven’t really seen this since John Major stood on a soap box in 1992,” says Oliver Colville, a local party official who was MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for seven years until Labour took the seat in 2017. “I hesitate to make the comparison, but it’s almost Trump-like in the way he’s disrupting things.”
Major’s soap box now comes amplified with social media, and the Stewart campaign points to the 68.4 million impressions his posts have collected as a sign he is tapping into something significant.
With the UK’s blocked post-Brexit politics cutting off the supply of practical solutions, Stewart says he wants to move “from the what to the how”. But while he often pivots to his two favourite issues, fixing social care and providing education in middle-age, his answers rarely include a policy prescription. Instead, his focus is on hearing from as many people as he can, and demonstrating that he understands how the UK’s broken politics is felt in everyday lives.
A woman who earlier was telling Shoshana that she wanted to ask Stewart if he would serve in Johnson’s cabinet, because she was only “interested in reality”, has softened a bit. “He’s a poet,” she says as Stewart sums up.
“We need to unlock some very, very fundamental issues,” he says, before making an escape that takes another five minutes as he’s asked to pose for selfies. “When these toddlers are 17 and 19, in some ways, things will look very similar. There will still be a wonderful cedar tree growing here next to the pagoda; the sun will still be shining and the Thames will still be running… but the whole structure of the world is changing.”
The unspoken question: how much change is the Conservative Party ready to accept?