Rory Stewart may have walked through the Afghanistan desert, written several books and even served as a deputy governor in Iraq during the war, but the greatest challenge of his career to date could be far closer to home: beating Boris Johnson.
The international development secretary’s softer stance on Brexit and conciliatory approach has forced people to question whether he can take on Johnson’s soundbites, which so far include withholding our £39bn divorce bill and leaving the EU with or without a deal come 31 October.
But Stewart, an outsider in the race who has upped his profile with a social media campaign targeting ordinary voters, does not share their scepticism. He believes he is the only candidate who is able to take on Johnson, the undisputed frontrunner in this race.
Having secured the support of the eight MPs needed to make it to the first round of the contest, Stewart told City A.M. he can get the 17 needed to progress to the next stage.
“I’m getting more and more support and I am confident I can make it to the second round,” Stewart says.
“If I can get to the TV hustings stage that’s where I can perform. That’s where my strengths are. I can out-communicate Boris.”
Certainly, Stewart has pitched himself as the antithesis to Johnson. “I am the only candidate that is acknowledging reality,” he says. “Everyone else is pretending they can get a different deal from Brussels, and they will end up letting everyone down.”
Stewart claims his refusal to unveil any “fancy” spending plans places him apart from his rivals. Johnson caused a stir on Monday when he pledged to increase the higher rate income tax threshold to £80,000, in a move that would benefit three million people. Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has come out with his own hawkish proposal to increase defence spending above the current two per cent of GDP, while Michael Gove has vowed to ditch VAT.
“I won’t spend money we don’t have,” Stewart – who counts Bank of England governor Mark Carney as a friend – declares. “Tax cuts have to be affordable and to do that we have to avoid a no-deal Brexit. The impact of a no-deal Brexit would far outweigh any of the fancy economic policies the other candidates are coming out with. Our brand is for economic competence, and we need to defend that.”
One thing he says the country needs to be less defensive about is the success of the City. Stewart rejects the notion that the capital has received too much investment. On the contrary, he thinks it hasn’t had enough.
“I’m really proud of the City of London,” he says. “If I look at things that drive this country, it is the City itself. We shouldn’t be defensive about it, we should embrace it.”
Stewart could have hardly chosen a more fitting place to join this crowded leadership race than the South Bank circus that hosted his launch this evening. The Tory that welcomes everyone into his tent will have to pull some tricks out the bag if he wants to appeal to his own tribe.