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Book review: Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within by Rory Stewart

by
24 November 2023

Anthony Phillips reads political reflections of a one-nation Tory

DAVID CAMERON, Boris Johnson, and Rory Stewart were all educated at Eton and Oxford. Two became Prime Ministers; one did not. Already an acclaimed author, Stewart (Features, 3 November) — with ruthless honesty, not least about himself — describes his nine years in Parliament, concluding with the débâcle of the second television debate that led to his elimination from the chance to challenge Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party. It is both a riveting and painful read, which, frankly, exposes the glaring inadequacies of the dysfunctional way in which Britain is governed.

In sharp contrast to Cameron, when Stewart entered the Commons in 2015 as MP for Penrith and the Border, he had behind him 20 years of work experience as governor of a province in Iraq, founder of an NGO in Afghanistan, and a professor at Harvard. Yet, for his first term in Parliament, he remained on the back benches as lobby fodder. Only once did he vote against the Government, by locking himself in a lavatory.

Recognising that fawning loyalty was necessary for promotion, Stewart began to play the game, despising himself in the process. He even considered standing down at the next election. But that would have been a betrayal of his constituents, for whom he worked assiduously — work that made up for all the frustrations of Parliament. At last, after the 2015 election, Cameron appointed Stewart a junior Minister at DEFRA, under Liz Truss.

One of the gems of this memoir is the individual recorded conversations. A sample is Truss’s greeting of Stewart: “The problem with you, Rory, is you try to be interesting in Parliament and the media. Never be interesting.”

Next, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the resignation of “the last representative of the old Blairite liberal order in British politics”, Cameron, Theresa May appointed Stewart to the Department for International Development. Although ideally qualified for this post, he had doubts: “I had become an MP precisely because I had lost faith in the idea of foreigners’ trying to reshape other people’s countries.” Later, at Stewart’s request, his position was combined with a post at the Foreign Office.

Next, Stewart was reshuffled to the Ministry of Justice, where, against all odds, by adopting what he called a “loving strict” policy, long practised by good head teachers, Stewart reversed the endless climb in prison violence and supply of drugs, and made prison a more humane experience. Through his hands-on approach, he came to realise the “extraordinary, sometimes almost beautiful qualities in prison officers and prisoners. It was the first role in government I had really loved.”

That post was exercised while May tortuously sought to implement Brexit with minimum damage to Britain and her economy and security. Stewart admired May’s achievement in getting a Brexit deal that would leave Britain closely aligned with Europe, diplomatically and economically, without being part of EU government structures.

It was now with three defeats for her Brexit deal behind her, and a crumbling administration, that May promoted Stewart to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for International Development.

It was too late. With May’s subsequent resignation, the way was open for Johnson to succeed her. Desperate to stop him, Stewart sought a One Nation Tory who might defeat him. Failing, he stood himself. After the first television debate, he became, for many, the favourite to battle it out with Johnson, only to have his chances blown away in that fateful second. Later, for opposing Johnson’s Brexit deal, he, with others, was expelled from the Conservative Party, and left Parliament.

But his voice has not been silenced. With Alastair Campbell, he has created the popular podcast The Rest is Politics. Yet, as this memoir shows, his straightforward honesty, accompanied by his ability to think outside the box in all four of the ministries in which he served, indicates his huge loss to Parliament. He was originally a youthful Labour supporter. Perhaps a Starmer government could provide the answer?


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury
.

Read an interview with Rory Stewart here.

 

Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within
Rory Stewart
Jonathan Cape £22
(978-1-78733-271-3)
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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