Rory Stewart went to Eton, and on graduating from Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy and economics (PPE), he joined the Foreign Office. He worked in Indonesia, but left the diplomatic service in 1992 to undertake a two-year walk across Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal.
He subsequently served for two years as deputy governor of an Iraqi province for the Coalition Authority, following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the USA and Britain. In 2005 he established and ran a charity in Kabul. He taught at politics and human rights at Harvard, and his prime aim was to be involved in public service. In 2010 he was elected as a Conservative MP to the House of Commons and in 2014 he was elected by his fellow MPs as chair of the Defence Select Committee, an important parliamentary office.
Autobiography, politics and much more
Stewart’s book is a stimulating combination of political autobiography, political philosophy and political invective. He writes in a clear and attractive style. He describes well his feelings when he decided to stand as a Conservative MP before the 2010 general election. David Cameron formed his 2010 Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats. Stewart had reservations about David Cameron’s leadership, as being too aloof from people’s concerns about solving constituency problems.
Having had the unusual experience of living and working abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was frustrated by the relative complacency of British politicians in solving British social problems. His experience of solving social problems in his constituency of Penrith and The Border showed him the importance of harnessing local experts and local enthusiasm to achieve results and being sceptical of the views of civil servants from the centre. This is well described in the sections on securing funding for projects in his constituency and in reforming the practices of the Prison Service.
Stewart had opposed Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum. He voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum. He was not deeply involved in the detail of either issue in their early stages. He describes the period of Conservative government thinking up to early 2018 as an elective dictatorship run by the prime minister with parliament generally passive. As soon as the draft withdrawal agreement from the EU was published in late 2018, the conventions of British politics were overturned and verbal warfare broke out between Brexiters and Remainers. Stewart had supported Theresa May’s deal with the EU, as being a fair compromise between the wishes of Leavers to be free of most of the EU’s political obligations and the need for Britain to benefit from the economic advantages of membership of the EU’s customs union and single market.
Rory Stewart: a modest and thoughtful candidate
In May’s government he served as Minister of State for International Development and then for Prisons. He was briefly a member of the Cabinet as Secretary of State for International Development but resigned in July 2019 when Johnson became leader of the party and prime minister.
Stewart, with 14 colleagues in 2019, stood a a candidate in the Conservative MPs’ poll for leader of the Conservative Party. He records how candidates such as Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid, who had voted several times for May’s Brexit deal, now opposed it entirely and presented the moderate Brexit deal, for which they had voted four weeks earlier, as a conspiracy to remain in the EU. Almost every candidate, echoing Boris Johnson, promised to obtain a radically different deal from Brussels, which would avoid all problems around the Irish border, and refused to rule out the threat of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. All the candidates promised extravagant tax cuts and vast additional spending when excessive government debt was a major problem. Stewart was consistently supported by Kenneth Clarke and David Gauke, leading pro EU grandees. Johnson won comfortably but certain newspapers and polls (representing the voting public) judged that Stewart was the clear winner in the debates.
No rest from politics
Stewart stood down as MP in October 2019, having lost the backing of his party. The following year he became a fellow at Yale University, teaching politics and international relations. He has written extensively about his travels and his political beliefs. In 2022 he launched, with Alastair Campbell, the podcast The Rest is Politics, which has since frequently topped the ratings of politics podcasts in Britain. His unique style of thinking about politics enlivened the politics of Brexit and will no doubt enliven politics generally more in the future. His book, Politics on the Edge, deserves to be read by all MP’, by aspiring MPs and by all students of British politics.