From the big tent home of London’s most famous comedy festival, Rory Stewart launched the only Tory leadership campaign that wasn’t a complete joke.
For the first time, toward the end of two long days of madness, he was the first of his kind to stand behind a lectern with his name on, and refuse either to gild the truth, or to flat out lie. And right at the end, it was the truth that finished him off, but we’ll get to that in due course.
What would Rory Stewart do? Well this is what he wouldn’t do. “I don’t believe in promising things we can’t deliver. I don’t believe in pretending you’re going to get a new deal out of Brussels. I don’t believe in promising £42bn to a single department.” (That’s the defence department, by the way. Jeremy Hunt reckons he’s going to double defence spending. It isn’t going to happen.)
It was, at times, like getting into a warm bath, like having’s one faith restored. Like pulling off the motorway at your own junction, and driving back into your home town after a long time away. This is what politics used to be like, before the whole pasture was poisoned by people too venal or too cowardly to do anything but lie to you. It was, in the four years that I personally have spent writing about politics, the first event I can recall attending that wasn’t, in some way, an embarrassment.
He spoke of the “energy for seriousness.” And as Conservative MPs and members lean towards Boris Johnson, he had a fiercely articulate answer for them.
“Your courage is embodied in your leaders,” he said. “In your choice you will be making a choice between one vision of Britain and another.”
It was pompous, in its way, grandiose. He spoke of Britain, once upon a time being personified by King Canute, by Gladstone, Churchill and Attlee. It is quite something to seek to draw this thread through them to you. But he is right to say the country is about to choose a new face through which to represent itself to the world, and that face is a mask of utter shame. Other choices are available.
Quite how he solves the Brexit impasse is a question to which his answer was less convincing. But he’s right to say it can’t be done in Brussels. It has to be done in parliament. He thinks the threat of a Brexit citizens assembly will sharpen MPs minds to find a way through. He also thinks the European elections have awakened Tory and Labour MPs alike to the consequences of not delivering Brexit. He is surely right. It, still, even now, may not have persuaded them of the merits of Theresa May’s deal however. Too many of them are too committed in their opposition to it. Too much humble pie would have to be swallowed. Too much face lost.
All he was offering, he said, is compromise. That was how you won, 20 years ago. He quoted the Professor John Curtice, the nation’s leading psephologist, and the closest thing British politics has to a David Attenborough. No one agrees on everything, but almost everyone agrees that Curtice is always right.
“Twenty years ago, politics was a bell shape,” Stewart said Curtice had told him. “Everyone is in the middle. Now it’s a U-shape. Everyone is out on the edges, polarised, and claiming to speak for the people.”
He’s right. Course he is. He’s always right. And Rory Stewart can’t help but tell the truth. That’s why he’s got no chance, and he’ll be gone by Thursday. It’s a shame though. The country did have a brief shot at dignity, but the Conservative Party has other ideas.