Last week, Rory Stewart was named as our “Politician of the Year.” Needless to say, this did not occur in the Houses of Parliament but at GQ Magazine. The appointment process for GQ’s “Politician of the Year” appears to be even more opaque than that of being selected as an EU Commissioner. Do the readers of GQ get to vote on who should be “Politician of the Year” or is this responsibility left to the editor? All of my research cannot winkle out even this most basic information about the prize. But as with the EU itself, who are we to criticise how GQ comes to its decision? We are simply told that Stewart has won and it is hardly for the likes of us to question why.
As Stewart was accepting his award, alongside the global elite of the wined and the dined at a ceremony at the Tate Modern, he received a text message explaining that he had been deselected as a Conservative MP. This was for voting for yet another delay to Brexit. Showing all of the wit of our greatest parliamentarian, Stewart managed to joke limply that, “You’ve made me ‘Politician Of The Year’ on the evening of which I’m no longer a politician.” Days later he was musing in the pages of the Spectator on the matter of “Am I still a Conservative?” Here, the clouds gathered in his eyes:
My parents gave me a subscription to The Spectator in 1984, when I was 11. When I was 12, I wrote a letter to the editor, criticising the progressive views of the Bishop of Durham, and Charles Moore — who had just become the editor at the age of 27 — published it under the headline ‘Very young fogey’… I was embarrassingly honoured when Charles Moore gave me high marks as a ‘real conservative’ two months ago.
During these tender reminiscences of a lifelong Conservative, Stewart forgets to mention that the first political party that he had actually joined was Labour. In the high days of Conservatism when Margaret Thatcher had been Prime Minister, Stewart was voting and campaigning for Neil Kinnock. Years later he was a deputy governor in Iraq, where he grew wise to Tony Blair’s neo-imperialist megalomania. When he joined the Conservatives in 2009, and duly won the seat of Penrith and the Border in 2010, he held the possibly unique distinction of becoming a Tory as a reaction to Labour’s crass jingoism.
I am not criticising Stewart for being so dubious a Conservative because I do not care who is in that party and who isn’t. I am more likely to vote for a progressive policy such as Brexit than I am for any party with “Conservative” in its title. Yet Stewart is such a curiosity to me because he represents an initially rather chaotic mixture of the technocrat and the picaro. Technocrat and picaro – let’s here take the first first and the second second.
Stewart is not a technocrat in the usual sense that he is unconditionally supportive of EU institutions. Indeed, he is impatient with bureaucracy and jargon. In 2010, for example, he complained that, “Ideally, what you want is someone who is thinking as they speak, rather than someone who has already thought it through and is banging it out.” Nonetheless, he was brought into politics, and fast-tracked through its tiers by David Cameron, as a no-nonsense problem-solver or as a valued outsider within normal political thinking. In this, he bears a striking resemblance to other gurus of mandarindom such as Steve Hilton and Dominic Cummings. This outsider appeal is still, in the end, that of an imaginative civil servant. There is a little of this anti-democratic magic rustling in Stewart’s fingertips, in which people think it better to be ruled by wise and supposedly impartial civil servants than by squabbling career politicians.
Stewart was a star civil servant within international diplomacy and post-imperialist spheres of influence. Moreover, his father, Brian Stewart, had been just as shiny an ornament in the same spheres. The father had helped to run Malaysia and Burma when the Empire was winding down; the son, meanwhile, was our man in Iraq. Rory had undertaken a 6000-mile walk from Turkey to Nepal, between 2000 and 2002, typically alone and often showing tremendous bravery and resourcefulness. This serves to demonstrate an ideal in which administrators should be empathetic, hands-on, and schooled in realities on the ground. Such an administrator should be a social magician who passes effortlessly through the knotty, fundamentally passive societies that it is his problem to solve.
When profiling Stewart in the Guardian in 2010, Julian Glover perceptively wrote of how he “seems to display a dreamlike disconnection with the world as other mortals experience it.” Whether he is walking amongst the remote goatspeople of the Afghan mountains, or hobnobbing with his Cumbrian constituents, Stewart’s stance towards these societies is essentially the same. He has to serve them and rule them and maintain or fix them. They are cast as the natives and he is conversely the lonely administrator. This relationship is naturally consensual but the societies that are on the receiving end of Stewart are still too disempowered for the process to be ever adequately democratic.
We are presently at a low point in Stewart’s picaresque, with him having come fifth in the recent Tory leadership contest and with him now losing the Tory whip. He is a picaro because he is always on an aimless adventure within the British establishment. Even so, he can never exercise the airy freedoms of an all-powerful panjandrum due to his more immediate failure as a party politician. As a party man, he is surprisingly clueless or distracted.
Were Stewart and the other “rebels” to be given back the Tory whip it would lead to the deterioration of the Conservatives as a practical political party. It would mean that the Tories would bizarrely field two sets of candidates in the forthcoming general election. In some constituencies a vote for the Tories would be a vote for the government, whilst in others it would be a vote for some kind of superfluous internal opposition. If the Tories won a majority of seats in the new parliament, they would ostensibly command the confidence of the House and be able to form a government. In reality, however, their in-built opposition would undermine everything that their government did.
Such a crazy system only comes to finally make logical sense as an evasion of democratic responsibility and accountability. During the last election there were too many of these slips ‘twixt cup and lip, and this explains how we are all today in the drink. Politicians from both Labour and the Conservatives had stood for parliament on manifestos that had promised to honour the result of the 2016 referendum. Once they had weaselled their way into their seats, they suddenly discovered that their constituents had not voted for these manifesto commitments after all. No, they had instead voted for splendid individuals, who were free to use their independent, non-party-political judgement in whatever way they wished.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson is routinely scolded for telling “lies” and for his supposedly compulsive and troubling dishonesty. You would think from how he is described that Johnson was the grand bogeyman of all political lying. This is so strange because most of the “rebels” and Remainers who daily traipse through the television studios, typically to castigate Johnson for his dishonesty, had themselves failed to provide a truthful account of how they would behave, and what they would vote for, in the present parliament.
Stewart’s perfidy is twofold because he had submitted himself when the time was right, and the date was set, for determining the Tories’ Brexit policy. He had stood as a candidate in the Conservative leadership contest, where he had had a fulsome opportunity to detail his own suggested plans. Now that they have been roundly rejected, he and his fellow “rebels” want to overturn this democratic outcome with the sheer weight of their egos. This is doubtless symptomatic of that infuriating way in which Remainers can never seem to “get” democracy or see it whenever it is in front of them.
Over the last few days, the UK’s media has been disproportionately flooded with cries of appreciation for the twenty-two Tory “rebels.” “They stood for the national interest – paying the highest price. History will validate them,” the Guardian’s Will Hutton has boomed. Lord Heseltine has compared them to those who had struggled against appeasement in the 1930s. Alas, in one YouGov poll that was conducted a day after Stewart’s expulsion, a trickling 5% of respondents had agreed with the position of the “brave” Tory “rebels” that Brexit should register any further delay. When the Tory party had reflected the mainstream wisdom of Stewart, and Ken Clarke, and Amber Rudd, it had won 9.1% of the vote during the European parliamentary elections.
Stewart is no sane sense a “rebel” – politically and economically, he fully favours the status quo. Yet in today’s topsy-turvy politics, in which a party with the word “Conservative” in its title is led by a man who could break the law to further democracy, as though he was a Suffragette, Stewart is correspondingly rebelling as a reactionary. This is our “Politician of the Year.”