Monday 28 October 2019 5:01 am

Rory Stewart: The mayoral candidate in need of a London story

It might feel like a lifetime ago, but turn the clock back to the summer and for a brief moment it felt as if the Conservative party could be about to anoint Rory Stewart as Prime Minister.

The dark horse candidate, who stood on a ticket of soft Brexit – code for being “anyone but Boris” – drew support from heavyweights including Ken Clarke and David Gauke before an excruciating TV debate brought Stewart’s ambitions to an end.

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Having repeatedly ruled out serving in a Boris Johnson Cabinet it was no surprise to find him persona non grata under the new regime and he joined the backbenches, then alongside 20 other Tories, Stewart lost the whip. Obscurity beckoned.  

After many tweets insisting #RorysStillATory, Stewart surprised everyone by resigning as an MP and standing as an independent candidate for London mayor.

That includes Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey and incumbent Sadiq Khan, neither of whom are said to be thrilled by this last-minute contender who is likely to steal votes from London’s many centrist Remainers.

One of the first charges against Stewart is that he has no London connection. Born in Hong Kong, he spent much of his life in Malaysia and Scotland, was educated at Eton and Oxford, and then spent much of his working life abroad.

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London: 33 boroughs, or 700 villages?

As an MP he has represented Penrith and The Border for nearly a decade. So what is his London story? 

Stewart bristles at this, stressing that his experience of the city is like that of many Londoners. But, he insists that one of the key challenges to the role is understanding that London isn’t “just one city – in some ways, it’s 700 villages”. 

“My connections to London are all in South Kensington – I have to make sure I develop an understanding of Bromley and Bexley and Neasden,” he says. He talks about a recent trip to Brixton, where tensions exist between new arrivals and longer-standing residents. 

“It’s still a very mixed area,” Stewart says. “If my campaign is about anything it’s about avoiding pitting people against each other. I don’t want a London where you pitch poor against rich, old Londoners against those who have just moved there – the key thing is to create a sense of London as it really is, of difference, not division.”

But how would he operate City Hall? He insists his “skill set is very operational – it’s not about making grand speeches in parliament, it’s about working logically through what it really means to make streets safe,” he says.

Knife crime features highly in his Twitter feed, following his harrowing walkabout in Poplar during the leadership campaign, in which an interview with the brother of one victim was interrupted by another fatal stabbing down the road. 

Read more: Rory Stewart quits Westminster to run for London mayor

Independence is a virtue

Stewart is also hoping to turn his apparent weakness – that of being an independent candidate – into a strength, which at a time when faith in politicians at large might not be that much of an ask.

“I am not tied to any political parties, I don’t have to apologise for Corbyn or Johnson,” Stewart says. He calls on Khan to “be like me and stand as an independent”, given the Labour candidate’s apparent disagreement with the current leadership. 

“[Khan] should put his money where his mouth is, and put out his own manifesto…  The question is what does he really think about the Labour party right now, what does he really think about their desire to abolish private schools? If his view is like mine, that these policies are bonkers, I don’t think it makes sense to say l’m part of a party that has moved to an extreme,” Stewart says.

“This is why I left [the Conservatives]. I reached the point where I couldn’t sign up to the manifesto. If he is like me, he should have the courage of his convictions.”

But how independent can Stewart truly be, I ask, given how often he toed the line on votes in parliament? He rejects the accusation. Opponents are “trying to cherry pick votes… to twist my voting record, to make a party political point,” Stewart says.

“My Conservatism is about pragmatism and common sense – it’s about respect for individual rights, limited government, respect for tradition. But it’s not right wing… I’m not a party-political person,” he explains.  

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How would Rory Stewart prepare London for Brexit?

Stewart’s leadership bid explicitly repudiated a no-deal Brexit – so what happens if a deal is struck? 

“I need to be very cold and clinical in thinking through what the consequences of different versions of Brexit are on London,” he says. “This is about how London prepares for all the different things that are imposed on it by the European Union, by Number 10, by parliament.” 

If, for example, a deal goes through without any provision for services on which the capital is so reliant, “the mayor would have to lean very quickly and aggressively into signing a new service trade agreement with the EU, and then other countries,” Stewart says.

“It is very important, this ambassadorial role, which is why someone with diplomatic experience is crucial as mayor. A no deal… is a disaster, but there’s not much point as mayor staring glumly at the disaster – you have to get straight onto the planes and phones and get deals set up as as quickly as possible.”

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Can ex-Tory Rory win London glory?

But can Stewart really do it – or will his campaign fizzle out just as his leadership pitch did? 

Conservatives appear to already be accepting that Stewart will beat Bailey, although ultimately lose out to the incumbent Khan. “It’ll be a kick in the teeth for the party,” says one. “We would have to think about why we are not having any resonance in London – it shouldn’t be that difficult.”

And what will it mean for Stewart himself? He declines to answer the question, but he is certainly revelling in his position as a rogue agent, undefined by party policies and unpunished by whips.

Former colleagues suggest his long-term plan is simply to bide his time before making another gambit for Prime Minister. As one MP puts it: “He wouldn’t be the first man to move from City Hall to Downing Street.”