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The bizarre cult of Rory Stewart

The centrist-dad gushing over this Old Etonian reveals the elitism of Remainerdom.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Brexit Politics UK

Reading some of the fawning coverage that has greeted the publication of Rory Stewart’s parliamentary memoir, Politics on the Edge, you could be forgiven for thinking a messiah now walks among us.

Centrist dads across the media have barely been able to contain themselves as they try to touch the hem of Stewart’s garments. They have praised the former Tory MP for his supposed seriousness and thoughtfulness. And above all for his ‘principled’ opposition to ‘Hard Brexit’ and its parliamentary booster, Boris Johnson – the ‘dangerous’ one as Stewart calls him. Stewart is no ordinary politico, it seems. He is their saviour from the blight of populism.

We’ve been here before. During the 2019 Tory leadership contest, Stewart faced off against his Brexity rivals, transforming himself into the champion of well-to-do liberals across the land. Guardian writers praised him for putting ‘principle before power’. ITV politics editor Robert Peston claimed Stewart ‘electrified’ audiences with his ‘lyrical’ peroration. Times columnist David Aaronovitch even fantasised, football-manager-style, about an ideal ‘party / alliance’, with Stewart alongside the Lib Dems’ Jo Swinson and Labour’s Keir Starmer.

Since then, Stewart has left parliament behind and established himself as part of a centrist double-act alongside Alastair Campbell on their podcast, The Rest is Politics. It’s a thoroughly smug affair and it’s proven incredibly successful. It turns out that well-to-do liberals love to have their prejudices catered to.

The publication of Politics on the Edge has cemented the Cult of Rory. He is now being talked about as almost too good for politics, perhaps too good for the voters even. Centrist pundits have fallen for Stewart’s own self-heroising as a would-be Lawrence of Remainia – ‘keen to work, perhaps even die, for one’s country’, as he describes himself. And they have lapped up his poison-pen portraits of the leading Tories they have long loved to loathe. The very eyes of Boris Johnson, we’re told, radiate ‘furtive cunning’. ‘He alone could cloak a dark narrative in clowning’, writes Stewart in his book. ‘He alone allowed the public to indulge ever more offensive opinions under the excuse that some of it might be a joke.’

At first glance, the adoration of Rory among the Guardian-reading classes might seem a little curious. He may have the academic / NGO credentials that liberals fawn over (he once ran a charity in occupied Afghanistan, before enjoying a two-year stint teaching human rights at Harvard). But he is also the very embodiment of old Tory privilege. After Eton and Oxford, Stewart joined the Foreign Office and was appointed deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces after the invasion in 2003. In 2010, he rang up fellow Old Etonian and Tory leader David Cameron and effectively invited himself into parliament.

Despite having a background and sometime party affiliation that would normally bring right-thinking liberals out in hives, Stewart has been sanctified. Much of this is to do with Brexit and Boris Johnson, of course. While Remainer Stewart backed Theresa May’s ‘Soft Brexit’ deal, the more hardcore pro-EUers seem to have forgiven him for it. He has successfully portrayed himself as the anti-Boris, a man he recently dubbed an ‘egotistical chancer’. Stewart is decidedly ‘anti-populist’, seeing the recent demand among ordinary people for more control as some horrendous break with ‘liberal optimism’.

It goes deeper than that, too. What centrists love about Stewart is that he is a technocrat. He seems to think the dysfunctions of modern politics are squarely down to a lack of expertise and managerial nous. He writes of how ‘grotesquely unqualified’ politicians are – including himself, he says, with cloying and unconvincing self-deprecation. He writes repeatedly of the importance of ‘careful governing’ and of the ignorance and cluelessness of his former parliamentary colleagues. But he reserves his deepest technocratic animus for the electorate itself. He even dreams of a government free ‘of the daily insolence of voters’.

The Cult of Rory reveals the deep elitism of Remainerdom. For all their Tory-bashing, metropolitan liberals clearly believe the elites have a right to rule. And with Rory – with this fusion of patrician Tory, jet-setting academic and NGOcrat – we see how much the new, technocratic elites echo the pomposity and paternalism of the old conservative elites.

One catches a glimpse of this when Stewart talks about his time governing Iraq. As he told the New Yorker in 2010, he believed that if he ‘spent a lot of time sitting with sheikhs, and got my politeness right, and understood the culture’ he could ‘build a state’. He seems to relate to the natives of Britain in a similarly neocolonial fashion. During his ill-fated campaign for London mayor in 2020, Stewart offered to sleep on Londoners’ floors, as if ordinary people are exotic creatures he needs to observe and learn from.

For all the centrist-dad gushing, Rory Stewart is just another ambitious Old Etonian with a propensity for absurd self-aggrandisement (during his first speech in parliament in 2010, he likened himself to Scott of the Antarctic). Meanwhile, his bizarre fandom is a reminder of the elitism of Remainia – of metropolitan liberals who claim to be modern and progressive, but who are desperate for our ‘betters’ to rule over us. Well, Stewart may be their saviour. But he’s not ours.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Brexit Politics UK

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