Paul Vallely: Rory Stewart is a leader who listens

14 June 2019

His civility, honesty, and calm rationality impress Paul Vallely

IN THE Conservative Party’s boringly predictable leadership-election race — in which each candidate seeks to out-Brexit the others, or dangle tax and spending bribes for party activists — one figure has stood out. Rory Stewart has reminded us of a different kind of politician: one who seems, for all his youth, a relic of a previous era of civility, honesty, and calm rationality.

When he first declared his candidacy, it was treated as a bit of a joke. Although he is Secretary of State for International Development, most people had no idea who he was. His gawky gait, lollopy grin, and big ears drew comparisons from crueller political pundits to the affable Wallace, even without a Gromit by his side.

Instead of buttering up the Conservative MPs, who will vote on which two candidates go to party members for a final vote, he went out on the road to talk to ordinary people. And he did not head for the Tory shires, to ingratiate himself with the elderly affluent party activists who will decide who will be next Prime Minister of this country.

Instead, he went to places like Wigan, Barking, Derby, and Lewisham Market, to encounter the general public who are excluded from this election. There, he announced that the first requisite of leadership was listening — and proceeded to do just that.

The public got a taste of what he was about from his engagingly amateurish, off-the-cuff-linked, selfie-stick-wielding #RoryWalks Twitter feed. Then, on a World at One phone-in, he answered listeners’ questions with the kind of guileless candour that we no longer expect from politicians. He remained admirably calm in the face of some angry Brexiteer callers.

The result is that, in a YouGov poll, he came out top when the general public were asked which Tory would make the best Prime Minister. An Opinium poll showed him to be the only candidate with more positive than negative ratings.

In many ways, Mr Stewart is the quintessential Tory. The son of a diplomat, after Eton, where he studied Greek as well as Latin, he was an officer in the Black Watch. Then came Oxford (Balliol) to read, first, Modern History, and then Philosophy, Politics and Economics — the classic degree for top politicians. In the holidays, he tutored Princes William and Harry before entering the Foreign Office and becoming a diplomat in Indonesia and Montenegro. He also, reportedly, was a spy with MI6, walked across Afghanistan four months after 9/11, then went to Iraq to administer provinces of its southern region. After that, he taught at Harvard, where he rubbed shoulders with Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, and other United States’ luminaries, before answering David Cameron’s call for unusual MPs.

Mr Stewart is the kind of exotic English eccentric that Boris Johnson only pretends to be. He almost certainly knew from the outset that he had almost no chance of becoming Prime Minister this time around, but he appears to be a chess-player who is thinking three moves ahead. Right-wing Tories will never vote for him. But he could just be the man, one day, to bring the middle ground of this divided country back together.

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