Nick Hopkins finds a strange kind of hope in the emergence of Rory Stewart’s emotional intelligence and virtue modelling in the Tory leadership race, and says he offers signposts to what Labour needs to find in its next leader.
The feeling was so odd as to be almost unrecognisable. Political hope, for the first time in four years? What was even odder was its cause: a very pukka Tory called Rory. Odder still was knowing I was not the only one to feel it.
What was this about? Probably a combination of the gradual seeping away of my political tribalism under Corbyn, an immediate future in which it seems the least worst Tory is the best we can hope for as PM, and the general sense that we are living through a Yeatsian shitshow in which the worst have not just the passionate intensity but the power as well.
But that’s context setting not full explanation. What is it about Rory?
It’s partly policy.
Yes, we can see his voting record. He’s a loyal taker of the Tory whip. If he is ever prime minister Labour should bash him with that record (though how well those attacks would land is a different question).
But you can see the outlines of something different in his platform. The greening of Britain; mass tree planting and intelligent links drawn to overseas aid and to regional policy. A prioritisation of public spending above tax cuts; a willingness to reach across the aisle on social care. A housing policy focused on borrowing to build 2 million homes, with a rider that that both lifts the promise and captures his appeal – they are to be homes that we can be proud of as a country.
This is a one nation Conservatism. It wouldn’t destroy the country, and it might even make some things better.
The temptation is always to prefer our opponents to be caricatures, but in a country with a record of regularly electing Tory Governments, Stewartism seems to be preferable to Johnsonism (pun intended). Above all, given the need for urgent action on the environment, his empirically driven, green Conservatism is an essential missing element of our politics right now.
But it’s more than policy.
Stewart’s campaign has modelled traditional Tory virtues throughout, in a way that shows up our own party as much as his internal opponents.
There’s been the simple, romantic but rooted, expression of his unionist patriotism, in a context of toxic English nationalism on the right, and the woke left being uncertain about whether expressing pride in your country should get you cancelled. He even risked referencing soil and patriotism together when talking about his tree planting plans – not daft in a nation of garden centres. That expression has also been non-sectarian, with praise for Attlee as well as Churchill, and at ease with our multicultural Britain, more 2012 Olympics than 1950s fantasy.
He talked in his launch speech of the ‘energy of shame’. We do talk about shame on the left; we say the Tories should feel ashamed of the state of our country, we use shaming as a weapon when people step outside the bounds of ‘correctness’. But we see shame as being for others. Stewart’s speech gives the sense that there are times that he personally feels it, and that democracy depends on that being true of all involved.
He’s right, and there should be more shame from us about the crankism and anti-Semitism that has infested our party, and more energy to deal with it. And in a world of bullshitters without shame, whether Brexiteers conveniently forgetting bus slogans or people defending wreath laying, a world dominated by the ultimate unshameable huckster Trump, he’s refreshing.
That launch speech also referred to the ‘energy of action’. I’ve followed Stewart’s career since his books about walking across Afghanistan and acting as a Deputy Governor in Iraq. I read both with a degree of envy; that second book portrayed an almost exact contemporary of mine, in his early 30s at the time, who was out in the world trying to get stuff done. It impressed me to the extent I was genuinely disappointed when I heard he was standing for the Tories.
Nine years of ideologically driven austerity have meant that those of us working in public services often feel we can hope to do no more than mitigate its damage. But policy is about pragmatism and technical competence as well as ideology, and you feel that Stewart, even if constrained by the resources bequeathed by his party’s ideology and by the fools around him, would get some stuff technically right, guided by the experts he values. You could start to hope that some things would change for the better. You can imagine, for example, a Stewart government making at least partly good on May’s ambitions to cut rough sleeping.
Beyond these virtues Stewart seems both authentically clever – though self aware enough that he’s not a dick about it – and personally decent. Intellectually curious, with a clear analysis but one that is flexible and open to development. Intellectually brave and able to make coherent arguments for humane causes, for international aid, prison reform and greening Britain, and take them to people not usually considered liable to listen.
For the last four years it has felt as if there is an edict against intelligence and decency in our politics. In an age of the not-that-bright (kindly phrased), the Burgons, Corbyns, Steve Bakers and Mark Francoises, of the bright-but-robotic, the Mays and Starmers, and of the bright-but-loathsome, the Johnsons, Milnes and Murrays, he stands out as something different.
But. He’s not going to win. He may even be gone by the time you read this. And from a purely short term, party advantage point of view, both Corbyn and Swinson should breathe a sigh of relief. Johnson is a far easier opponent to define yourself against.
For me, that he will lose is a sadness, not just because he would be a better PM than any of the immediate options, but because he would force us to be much better, and much less lazy, if we wanted to win.
If we are open to them though, he has lessons for Labour in terms of choosing our post-Corbyn leader.
We need a leader (and a PLP) who can cut it intellectually, capable of engaging in argument and directly answering questions, neither retreating into mantras, like May at her worst, nor reacting with barely suppressed anger under a bit of pressure, like Corbyn at his, and who can communicate a clear sense of where things are wrong, where we need to get to, and the map for getting there.
We need a leader who is authentic and at ease with people. ‘Rory Walks’ has taken some courage, and has had its moments of comic awkwardness, but it has paid off, showcasing Stewart’s ability to establish a rapport with people from very different backgrounds. There have been flashes of that with Corbyn, but with a narrower range of the public, and his unfortunate preference for the adoration of rallies and crowds is clear.
We need a leader who can get things done. Last time we chose a man with a lifetime of non-achievement behind him. Unsurprisingly the result has been an ineffective opposition, populated with a number of people who would find running a menodge beyond them, and internal chaos (with a side order of bigotry). The mistake of prioritising ideological purity and forgetting about competence cannot be made again.
We need someone who can speak in terms of conservative (and liberal) as well as labour virtues. Someone who is at ease with patriotism and pragmatism, leavening idealism with realism about the crooked timber of humanity, who understands the importance of evolving institutions and traditions in underpinning our democracy, and is clear about the risk we face of chaos if we let a car crash happen. Displaying those virtues doesn’t preclude real change, it anchors it, and by growing our appeal, makes change possible.
We need shame in politics, and we need honest conflict and anger. But we also need healing. Internally, the next leadership contest must involve an unflinching look at what we have become in the Labour Party, at the mistakes and much worse on all sides. There will be plenty of shame, conflict and anger to go round in that process. It’s possible that the party won’t survive it, and it’s certain and desirable that some people will walk away or be cleared out. If we do survive, the process must end with healing. The new leader must bring everyone with them worth bringing, and will have to show the sort of emotional range that Stewart has communicated in doing so.
And when that leader goes to the country, the conflicts we need to have must be carefully identified, and the anger used sparingly. We can’t just be kinder and gentler in the way we do things (a bit of trying would be nice, mind), but anger alone won’t convince either, and won’t speak to people who are sick of the rush to extremes, the hatred and the constant febrility. Come the election there will be more of them than some of us think, and thankfully they may hold the key to power.