Politics On the Edge: A Memoir From Within

Rory Stewart

Jonathan Cape, £22


For someone who has served in the UK Cabinet and had senior roles in a variety of government departments, Rory Stewart is a curiously anti-politics politician. Often described as a maverick – and not in a good way – and, equally often, a square peg in a round hole, he rose from being a long-distance rambler – a 6,000 mile hike across Asia – to become one of the few sane Tories seriously to challenge Boris Johnson’s ego trip to become prime minister. How this came about is described with disarming candour and a dollop of self-abasement in his memoir Politics On the Edge, on whose cover he is pictured striding across stepping stones in a river metaphorically alive with piranhas.


Stewart’s critics, of whom there are legion among his soi-disant colleagues, insist he is naive – which he would perhaps concede himself – and the antithesis of a team player. His abhorrence, as a back bencher, of being treated as lobby fodder and strong-armed to vote against his own principles, is a running theme of what is a rivetting, often entertaining and alarming mash-up of Scoop, Yes, Minister and House of Cards.


“I divide the world between team players and wankers,” he quotes David Cameron as saying. “A team player,” Stewart explains, “was someone who parroted the party line with fervour, never rebelled, and was never abashed.” Among those who fitted this mould, he identifies Priti Patel, Liz Truss and Matt Hancock. Others, such as Amber Rudd and Anna Soubry, were, at least in private, more inclined towards scepticism and irreverence but, when push came to shove, even they fell into line and were “fanatically supportive” of Cameron. Stewart did not find it easy to be a member of this club.


What made him want to become a politician? Though from a military family and schooled at Eton, he was not an archetypal Tory. At eighteen he joined the Labour Party and at the 1997 general election had voted for the Lib Dems. In 2009, in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal, he was invited to meet Paddy Ashdown who was a fan of Stewart’s books on Iraq and Afghanistan, and who wanted to pick his brains on the latter. “Do you think I should be an MP?” Stewart asked. “Absolutely,”” replied Ashdown. “But for God’s sake don’t become a Lib  Dem, the point is to be a minister. Lib Dems get nothing done.”


And so began Stewart’s quest for a red box. The nearest seat to his family home in Perthshire was Penrith and the Border, and he decided to walk the 150 miles from one to the other. A train might have been a better option. Eventually, in what was to become his constituency, he met locals who told him, “You hardly see a white face in Penrith any more.”  In fact, ninety-eight percent of the population is white. Negotiating one hoop after another, he was finally selected, in large part, it seems, because of his opposition to the building of a giant supermarket in Penrith. After the result was announced Stewart bumped into a Conservative councillor who told him that in his view he should never have been chosen. Not for nothing is it known as the Nasty Party.


Westminster was no more friendly than the Lake District. New MPs were expected slavishly to follow the party line, do what the whips told them and only speak when in praise of the cult’s messiah. To do otherwise was deemed career suicide. Cameron did not take to Stewart and vice versa. While Stewart had been in working in the Middle and Far East, Cameron had been biding his time on the back benches. “He was a veteran of life on Mars,” writes Stewart, “who knew exactly what that planet cost its inhabitants, and here was I proposing to fly in, expecting to be welcomed, as though I were volunteering in a soup kitchen.”


When Cameron did finally deign to speak to him it was to say that when he ceased to be PM he would happily spend the rest of his life representing his constituency. Like of many of the things Cameron and others of his ilk said, it was weaselly tosh. Bare-faced lies, unkept promises, unreal targets and unmeant compliments delivered with the sincerity of a vicar reciting the Lord’s Prayer, run through this book like life-long guarantees from snake oil salesmen.


Nothing exemplifies this more acutely than the Brexit referendum. Stewart, like most Tory MPs, was a remainer, but that counted for naught when you had grifters like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg promising a land of milk and honey when unshackled from Brussels. Theresa May, one of the few fellow Tories Stewart respects, did get a deal but could not quell the howls of the hyenas who insisted they could do better.


And so we come to a chapter titled ‘Pinocchio’ – i.e. Johnson – against whom Stewart stood for the premiership. “Boris Johnson,”  he writes, “referred to foreigners as people who cooked ‘goat curry on campfires’ and wore veils that made them look ‘like letter boxes’. He said, ‘Islam will only be truly acculturated to our way of life when you can expect a Bradford audience to roll in the aisles at Monty Python’s Life of Muhammad’.” Racists – inside and outside the Tory party – lapped it up. Others didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.


Stewart’s valiant campaign failed in the face of vituperative attacks from the right-wing media. How could it be otherwise when, as he says, “We felt like a book club going to a Millwall game”? He has since left politics for academe, a non-profit organisation and a podcast with Alastair Campbell. He is a loss, there is no doubt about that. Politics On the Edge,  despite a few repetitions and slips – Labour did not lose “every” seat in Scotland at the 2015 general election to the SNP –ought to be read by everyone who is concerned at the state of the body politic. Here be clueless folk running every aspect of our lives with little or no expertise or, even worse, care. Things are bad and who would bet on them getting better any time soon?