Rory Stewart offers the tantalising prospect of civilising and rejuvenating the party once again, writes Euan McColm
Back in 2005, David Davis was the runaway favourite to succeed Michael Howard as leader of the Conservative Party.
The Tories had just suffered their third general election defeat on the trot and Davis appeared to party members, who would choose the next leader of the Opposition, to be the obvious man for the job. The race was his to lose, an objective he went on to achieve.
David Cameron, relatively unknown then, launched an audacious leadership bid in which the central message was that the Tories had to move with the times or die. Cameron’s conservatism was, went the story, modern and compassionate. And it was dynamic, too. Look! Here’s a photograph of him driving some huskies across the snow.
Over the course of the Tories’ annual conference, Davis’s leadership bid collapsed. Cameron went on to win and – with a little help from the financial crash of 2008 – became prime minister in 2010.
The Tory Party membership was then – as it is now – largely comprised of older people. The assumption was made that these members would stick with Davis and his comfortably right-wing views.
Instead, they took the decision to do something fairly radical because it made electoral sense. In Cameron, Tory members saw someone who might conceivably win an election and their instincts told them to back him.
If Davis was the shoo-in in 2005, Boris Johnson is the man to beat in the current Conservative leadership contest.
The former Foreign Secretary – a serial liar and Brexiteer of political convenience – has been relatively quiet in these early days of campaigning (Why would he jeopardise his current lead in the preferences of party members by going out and saying anything that might backfire at this early stage?) but he’ll soon be stomping around the country promising whatever he deems necessary to advance his cause.
In the absence of alpha-git Johnson, other candidates in the contest to replace the departing Theresa May have had the opportunity to grab such limelight as is available. There can be no question that, of the current runners, Secretary of State for International Development Rory Stewart has been most successful in selling his brand.
Stewart – an old Etonian with a military and diplomatic background, who tutored young princes William and Harry and has the heady whiff of the former spy about him – has spent the past week striding around the country, tweeting videos of himself and inviting voters to meet him for a chat.
Stewart’s social media campaign is cleverly ramshackle; the videos aren’t perfectly framed and he’s self-deprecating about his communication skills. The effect of this is, of course, to add authenticity to Stewart’s crusade around the United Kingdom. You would have to pay a major advertising agency a great deal of money for a campaign so perfectly pitched.
Last week, one of the front-runners in the contest – Dominic Raab – explained that he was not a feminist while another contender – Esther McVey – said, when asked about protests against children being taught in school about the existence of members of the LGBT community, that parents knew what was best for their kids.
This stuff might play well with the right of the Conservative Party but for the rest of us, it’s pretty damned bleak.
Under the Conservative Party’s rules, the current field of candidates – 12, as I write, including people whose names I simply cannot, and will never have cause to, remember – will be whittled down through a series of votes. Eventually, two final candidates will be offered up to the party members who will make the final decision on who should be our next prime minister.
The current picture is this: a majority of Conservative Party members would back Johnson for the leadership but he is such a divisive figure in the parliamentary group that he is not guaranteed to make it to the final two. He might be political box office gold to some – witness Nadine Dorries’ monomaniacal support for the Johnson project, for example – but others reckon him a chancer, motivated entirely by self-interest.
Johnson might have the hard Brexiteers on board, but if they were anywhere near as powerful as they like to think they are, the United Kingdom would no longer be a member of the European Union.
Given current polling on Westminster voting intentions put the Liberal Democrats and The Brexit Party in first and second place, neither the Conservatives nor Labour have anything to gain from yet another general election. We are, it seems clear, stuck with a Conservative prime minister for at least another three years.
If the Tory members pick a gung-ho no-dealer as their next leader – and our next PM – then they might gee up the right-wing of the Westminster group, but the numbers which have, so far, prevented agreement between MPs about the shape of Brexit won’t have changed. The problems which scuppered Theresa May remain.
Stewart has spent much of the past week explaining why he thinks a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic. Beyond the membership of the Conservative Party, this is a reasonably common view.
Stewart – a Remainer whose pledge that he will deliver Brexit is undermined by the same issues which have hampered no-dealers – seems to have struck a chord with some voters in the same way that Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has. There’s a fair bit of “I’m not a Tory but he seems all right” in the air.
Stewart’s rather old-fashioned seriousness and courtesy should count for a great deal right now. Nigel Farage, Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and any number of their fellow populists have made politics uglier than it has been in living memory. Our debate grows more coarse, our tribalism more entrenched.
Stewart remains a long shot to become our next prime minister. That, I think, is a great pity. He may not have easy answers on Brexit – and who does? – but he might help civilise our political debate and that would be a very good thing, indeed.
Tory members chose the newcomer over the frontrunner in 2005. I hope they can find it in themselves to do the same in 2019.