Former Conservative Party leadership hopeful Rory Stewart's decision to stand as an independent candidate in the 2020 election for London Mayor sparked lively debate among friends and colleagues this week.
To briefly recap, Stewart was stripped of the Tory whip for supporting the Benn Act, which seeks to ensure that a no-deal Brexit is off the table. Ironically, he received news of his expulsion by text while collecting a Politician of the Year award. Rather than pursue a career as an independent for Penrith and The Border, where he is widely acknowledged to have been a responsive and capable constituency MP, he instead declared his intention in an open letter in London's Evening Standard
to step down at the next election to chase the keys to City Hall.
As a group, my friends tend toward (I hope they forgive me for labelling it such) a 'liberal (elite?)' consensus. Brexit is – with one or two dissenters – bad. Boris is – unequivocally – the worst. So it makes for a refreshing change of pace to have a politician who does not immediately polarise, but instead prompts serious discussion and reflection on what we want from our representatives.
From my straw poll, much of the criticism Stewart faces stems from his parliamentary voting record. I heard the phrase 'once a Tory, always a Tory' more than once. A glance over Stewart's page on the They Work For You website reveals an MP who consistently voted in favour of the Cameron-era government's policies on austerity. The best thing about his candidacy, says one critic, is the possibility that it will split the LibDem and Conservative vote.
So it may well be the case, as it was for Nick Clegg before, that toeing the line on welfare reduction and tuition fees scuppers the hopes of a politician who has set themselves up as the centre-ground's next great hope.
Playing devil's advocate for a moment, any politician who hopes to wield real influence under our creaking party political system tends not to vote against their own party. A fate as a long-serving, but ultimately irrelevant, backbencher awaits cantankerous rebels. (In this regard, Jeremy Corbyn is an outlier, though it is perhaps worth pointing out that he is not in power and is himself at the helm of a crackdown on dissenting voices within Labour.) Unlike Clegg, Stewart also never claimed to be anything other than a moderate Conservative.
However, on the defining issue of the day – Brexit – Stewart has walked a nuanced line, something even those ambivalent toward his past concede. As one friend puts it: 'Lofty austerity Tory, but right on Brexit'. Having campaigned for Remain during the referendum, he went on to support Theresa May's proposed deal as the least harmful way of delivering the oft-cited, frequently-abused 'will of the people'. But it was his campaign for Conservative Party leadership – in which Stewart leapfrogged from rank outsider to serious contender – that convinced many, especially in London, that this is a politician of unusual substance.
Stewart's insistence that any solution to Brexit deadlock involves listening more intently to the concerns of a broad swathe of society, and finding new methods of consensual decision making, is deeply appealing. The awkward selfie videos (which themselves split opinion between charmingly homespun or totally cringe inducing) and frequent public meetings around London engendered a sense of accessibility few politicians achieve.
Central to Stewart's campaign was support for a Brexit Citizen's Assembly; a sort of large-scale jury system, where randomly selected laymen, assisted by experts, make recommendations based on extended group discussions. One can imagine he may have used such techniques to resolve tribal conflicts when serving as the deputy governor of various provinces in post-war Iraq. 'Tribal' is a word frequently applied to our current politics. Without wanting to lean too heavily on the analogy, I cannot help but think the fractious state of the UK could benefit from a similarly open-eared approach.
On first sight, Stewart makes an unlikely candidate for a 'People's Mayor'. The unabashedly toffish son of a Scottish spy, who served in both the military and the diplomatic service himself, his background stands in stark contrast to the current mayor Sadiq Khan, famously the son of a South London bus driver. But while the effort to re-brand as a centre-ground figurehead from one-nation conservative has failed to convince many, at least when Stewart promises that he 'will be spending the coming weeks walking around London – not campaigning, but listening and learning, and walking through every borough,' I am inclined to take him at his word.
With UK politics taking a worrying lead from the US in its bad-mannered partisanship, it may be the case that good listeners, of all political stripes, are the antidote.
David Graves is a journalist from Edinburgh, living in London. His reporting is mainly focused on finance in emerging markets