Adam Somerset was on hand to examine the theatre of Westminster on the day of the first votes in the Conservative Party leadership contest, and took a particularly interest in Rory Stewart.
At 5:00 PM, on 17th June, I was in Westminster Central Library, a treasure-trove of books on theatre and film. After checking a reference in a print source, I went online to skim the political updates. The skim included the site of Rory Stewart.
Last week a writer from Wales asked whether Stewart would be travelling more widely and include the other nations on his street journeys. Stewart responded with a spirited defence of the Union – that is, the United Kingdom – and that Wales and the other nations would be on his itinerary. It is of course not that easy. In all the publicity, it is little mentioned that some of the candidates are in the Cabinet, whereas Johnson is no more than a back-bencher. As he said, his £5000 a week from the Telegraph pays more, for far less effort, than being in the Cabinet.
The government record for June 17th shows Stewart in a meeting with the President of Afghanistan. He might have been anywhere later on. In fact his schedule after the ministerial day is to cross the Thames to the South Bank and the Underbelly Gardens. As the location is twelve minutes’ walk from my library seat, so too at 6:00 PM am I in the same place.
A writer about theatre goes to a live performance to gauge an audience, to sense an atmosphere, to experience nuance and detail in public presentation. The Underbelly has two to three hundred people, the gender mix is equal. This is London and the diversity is high, and a third or more are under the age of thirty.
I talk to two of them, a woman and man wearing white “Rory for Leader” t-shirts. They apologise for breaking off the conversation but they have to ensure there is a path from entry door to stage. As it happens, I am in the corner of the venue next to that door. When it opens David Gauke leads with Stewart a step behind. But there is a collective audience gasp. At his side is David Lidington. There has been no announcement. It is an entrance of drama.
The two Davids make their brief introductions. Gauke says that all the candidates have been waiting for one backer who commands respect. The second David, Liddington, announces that Stewart has his endorsement for Leader and Prime Minister.
It is not the job of a critic to be a fan; the service done is in assessment, description, context. I have seen a few Ministers in my time. Stewart has the qualities on a platform that another two Davids, Steel and Owen, had when I saw them campaigning together. Stewart on a platform does four things. He spins sentences that are arresting but also have a simplicity to them. He is direct. His directness comes from knowing his audience. He is not addressing his party. He has been shaken by his walk in Poplar. He is speaking to us, the true, wide, big electorate, people of colour and white, across the generations.
Stewart has a sense of humour. After his earlier times as a diplomat and writer Brad Pitt, he says, took an option on his life story. Then he made a mistake, turning career to become a Conservative MP. If a film ever goes ahead Danny DeVito had better be in the casting. Stewart is not a tall man.
But his last rhetorical skill is the one that caps the others. I saw the same in Roy Jenkins on a public platform. After the facts he goes to the emotions. He moves his audience.
Stewart says he is a conservative. That includes economic prudence and he deplores the promises thrown about, the tax cuts and the unfunded splurges offered by his rivals. He has tricky questions to answer and does not dodge them. A man at the front reads a paragraph from Boris Johnson Daily Telegraph column of 13th June 2016. “That is pure lies,” says his questioner. “How you can stomach being in a party that feeds on lies like that and holds its author so close to its heart?”
Another asks about gender parity in the Cabinet that he will form. “I have to say I agree, but not entirely,” he says and follows it with a plea for the questioner to pitch into public life, become a Cabinet member herself. A heckler is persistent and he drops into the gathering to speak direct to him. Three members of the Cabinet are present and there are no intermediaries between politicians and people.
He has reservations about his own electorate and says he envies the Labour Party on that count. He wishes the Conservative Party had five, ten times the number of members. It is they, he says, who represent the people in its spread and diversity, in a way his party does not.
He is told that the United Kingdom has lost prestige in the last three years. “Greatness,” he responds, “does not come about by assertion and bluster.” Societies are judged by what they do. He is passionate on making prisons safe places. There is only one challenge for our times, to deal head-on with the issue of care. Stewart’s questioners throw critiques from all sides. His party is attacked and his government. But repeatedly the questions have a preface. It is to applaud his role. He is the only one to have taken the leadership campaign outside party to speak to the country.
The location is rock-solid Labour heartland, in every constituency for miles around until London reaches its outer suburbs. Labour took second place in the European elections right here, in Kate Hoey’s constituency. Stewart drops down from the stage. “I’ve said enough”. He has been at it for seventy-five minutes. “The conversations can continue over a pint.”
I talk to a couple of twenty-somethings, who are not just Labour voters but Party members. The younger of the two has beads, a piercing or two, a pint in her hand. “I would never have dreamed,” she says, “that I would ever consider backing a Conservative.”
The conversations, or the conversions, were the same the last time I heard a new generation Conservative in full rhetorical flow. On that occasion it was Ruth Davidson who also took questions. “Excuse me asking,” asked one, “But I’ve listened to all you have to say. Why are you a Conservative?”
These are days like no other, unsettling and alienating to many. Stewart’s party and his government can be abhorred. There are figures in both the old parties who have debased politics and degraded national life. Whatever view is taken, Stewart is not a part of that debasement.
Adam Somerset’s new collection of essays, Between the Boundaries, is available now from Parthian Books.